Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book #62: Intimacy & Locality

"After one girl has fallen, the rest are explicable; they have a template, a precedent.  But before that, it is hard to understand.  At the beginning of this problem, then, is a single girl, the first to fall."                                                                          -Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down

Over the weekend, I read Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down, which was recently named the Toronto Public Library's One Book, a city-wide initiative to encourage Torontonians to read the same book in April.  Although I don't particularly like the idea of going with the herd in terms of my reading, I heard Helwig being interviewed on CBC and was so intrigued that I couldn't resist picking up her novel.

It's set in Toronto, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  One of its central themes is clearly the culture of fear that 9/11 initiated, yet I found Helwig's narrative technique of conveying this sense of mass hysteria to be unusual, delicate.  Although the novel is largely told from the perspective of her main character, Alex - a medical photographer who takes pictures of open heart surgery by day, while taking pictures of the grittier side of life at night - many of the chapters begin and end in an omniscient voice that pans over the city and goes into momentary close-ups on the lives of random inhabitants.  "Across the river, among the towers of St. Jamestown, a Somali girl tightened her head scarf, zipped up her red jacket and set out on her hike to deliver newspapers, and on the street an Iranian man who had once been a doctor cleaned vomit from the backseat of his taxi.  A woman put a pan of milk on the burner of her stove, and stared at the creamy ripples on the surface."  It's as though the city itself is a main character, replete with emotions and misery.

This misery takes many forms.  In the opening scene, we see a pretty, glossy haired girl at the centre of a clique of high school girls suddenly fall down on the subway, her skin erupting in a strange, vicious rash, while smelling something like roses.  The incident precipitates a mass panic that sweeps through Toronto, as other girls mysteriously collapse in the days that follow, while the same paranoia plays out in the mind of our protagonist, Alex, who suffers from diabetes and becomes convinced he's on the verge of going blind.  But it soon becomes clear that Alex's physical state is inextricably tied to a deeper turbulence.  An old flame (or fling, to be precise) named Suzanne has wandered back into his life, a girl he used to be secretly in love with, back during his misspent youth in the louche establishments of 1980s Kensington Market.  He's all too familiar with the feeling of having watched Suzanne for years - Susie-Paul, as she was known back then - flirting, seducing and discarding men at whim, when they used to work together at a small newspaper, and all the while he tried to convince himself that "there was something different between them, sharper and more actual.  But he was probably wrong."

The novel beautifully illustrates the past and all his unresolved feelings refracted through the present story, as she seeks Alex's help in finding her schizophrenic twin brother, who has gone missing in the ravines of the city.  For the first time, Alex comes to understand why she was so messed up all those years ago and he is brought face to face with all her fears, secrets and vulnerabilities that persist even now, well into her thirties.  In this sense, I found the novel deliciously revealing and close to the bone, and I found that the characters drew me into their peculiar circle of intimacy so well, perhaps partly because many of the scenes are set in my own neighbourhood (Little Italy) and other adjacent neighbourhoods, like Kensington, where I've also lived and idled away much time during my wayward youth ...  The perfect stimulant to my own writing and emotions, as I embark on writing the final section of my own novel, part of which is also set in Toronto.

And speaking of Toronto writing, the cultural organization Diaspora Dialogues recently interviewed me about the role of Toronto in my own fiction ...  If you wish, you can listen to the podcast here.

Photo from: here


Fay St. Lawrence said...

I want to read Helwig's book after reading your blog! Mass hysteria seems to be partly the cause of the small town U.S. girls exhibiting Tourette's Syndrome.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Hope you enjoy reading it!

And Tourette's ... that makes me curious to visit the small-town US ...

Deb said...

What an interesting book. I haven't heard of it, and but enjoyed your review which inspires me to find a copy. Congratulations on your published book, Leslie.
I do stop in from time to time to enjoy your well-written and thought provoking reviews.

I'm a follower of yours.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks, Deb! I'm enjoying following your blog, too!


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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.