Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book #27: Better Than Therapy

“The butcher had come out and smacked his hands together and rubbed them back and forth, and he’d laid a steak on the stainless steel cutting board and turned on the saw, and he’d cubed it for her. Little stiff cubes with frost fibres in the purplish flesh, and this, Helen realizes now, is herself, her own heart, sliding back and forth under the blade.” -Lisa Moore, February

Life is a veil of tears for Helen O’Mara, when she loses her husband in the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger during a storm off the coast of Newfoundland. Lisa Moore’s latest novel February gives a masterly glimpse of her struggle to hold together some semblance of normal life – taking care of her four kids, cooking fish sticks, trying to make ends meet by taking a crappy job as a cocktail waitress (and being mistaken as a prostitute on her walk home at four in the morning). These ordinary yet absurd moments underscore for Helen that her life will never be the same. For much of the novel, she is emotionally paralyzed just letting this fact sink in.

The tragedy of her husband’s death and its endless ripple effects replay in her mind with an immediacy that doesn’t allow her to assign the disaster to the past. Surely, this is why Moore chooses to narrate many of these memories in the present tense; they are all too vivid at the forefront of Helen’s mind to be told as flashbacks. The most mundane activities, like going to the butcher, risk overwhelming her, flooding her with raw emotion. Yet these moments are strangely beautiful because we see Helen standing outside herself and slowly, painstakingly, finding the resources to heal herself and move on.

Isn’t this the great thing about literature? The novels that I love reading over and over again – Toni Morrison’s Sula, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth – have this deeply therapeutic effect. Although I could never have admitted this in my former life as a lit prof (my colleagues in the English department would have scoffed), the truth is that I’ve never been drawn to literature because I wanted to learn more about a certain period of history, philosophy or theory of any kind. Literature offers a much more primitive kind of experience that consoles and helps me relive the moments when I was so depressed my whole body felt laden with weights.

I remember all too clearly, for instance, my ballet teacher putting her hands on my eleven-year-old hips. Monique her name was. She pushed and prodded my hips into an awkward position and I toppled over, but not before she had felt the imbalance, my imbalance. She told my mother that my spine curves like an S and my mother took me to see the doctor and he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon and thus began a surreal phase of passing from x-ray machines to a fiberglass brace to operating table…. I think I just sort of curled into myself and hid in a closet in my head for those three years…. I recall the struggle to get up and get dressed in the morning, the numb, disjointed feeling as if my body were a marionette puppet, hands and feet hanging limp in midair.

It must have been during this time that I developed a penchant for sadness and sad literature. To identify through reading with another’s grief and triumph over that grief can be a very consoling, beautiful thing. February brought all those extreme emotions back and I fell in love with the journey all over again.

Photo from: here


Bushpig.vrc said...

I didn't know how you found the "S". Wild.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

It's funny but I even forgot (read: repressed) how the whole miserable episode got started. And then I was taking a creative non-fiction class a year ago and the memories came back....

Bushpig.vrc said...

I don't want to take any creative non-fiction classes then. I'm not ready for what I might find.

Deborah~~Your Bookish Dame said...

I'm not sure whether you mean us to laugh or cry, Leslie! You are so sardonic! But, that's what I'm loving about you.

Have you read, "Saffron Dreams," by Shaila Abdullah? It's about a young Muslim-American immigrant who is widowed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. (See my review on A survivor's tale with punch. You'll probably love it. I did.



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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.