Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

Wreckage of What Was

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence,  thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.

Young Lovers at Cross Purposes

To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.

Points of Confusion

But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.

Mounting Tension

Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

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Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they are reconciled. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers inventing a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension given that novel opens with Laura’s suicide being reported to her sister. This tension is important, too, because the storytelling (the switching among narratives) reflect Iris’s reluctance to reveal her truth, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that no one will ever know what transpired.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

In the tale Iris spins of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge. Chief among them are blindness, silence, and sacrifice, which also appear as physical traits in two characters from the sci-fi portions of Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruelly indulgent society where the wealthy blind slave children to produce luxurious carpets and cut out tongues of sacrificial maidens so that they cannot be disturbed by pleas to be spared. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell said horde how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion as do blindness and silence. However, blindness tends to be a failure to understand, just as sacrifice can stem from more noble impulses. Norval Chase (Iris’s father) generously decides to keep his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) employed, but he fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t exactly despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto the fact that it can be without merit. Implicit in her reflections on her father’s financial mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the idea that better choices on his part may have made a difference for herself and Laura.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, and their motivation is usually love. Liliana Chase endures her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness is a bit heavy handed here). She later dies following a miscarriage. The girls unfortunately pattern themselves after her example. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, particularly finds love to be burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. (And she certainly feels the older sibling’s resentment of being the only one required to be a good sister.) It’s this burden and lingering resentment that she shoulders into old age.

Concealment and Secrets

As the story spirals toward Iris’s long-held secrets, the role of concealment emerges. Concealment, of course, neatly dovetails with the effects of blindness and silence. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid the cruelty of their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. It’s this episode where what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter. Mr. Erskine is careful to conceal his own misconduct, so Iris only has Laura’s unexpected and, to Iris’s mind, too calm account of wandering hands to go by. Iris’s confusion borne from ignorance, however we might dislike it, makes sense given the historical context (children were not told about abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” plagues the abused and prevents justice. While concealment for Iris serves as a good survival strategy for dealing with the manipulative Geffen siblings, Laura’s choice to remain silent instead puts her at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one instead of confiding in Iris is both tragic and understandable.

In large part, concealment is what ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have opened up to her daughter, Aimee or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is somewhat immaterial. Atwood’s narrator whose is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may just have finally earned a bit of redemption for giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

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