Sunday, September 23, 2007

Turtle Valley

I spent last weekend with my women friends, and also with Gail Anderson-Dargatz's new novel, Turtle Valley. Luckily, we are all readers, so my hour-here, hour-there forays into this delicious book were socially acceptable. I have loved the previous novels by this author, and her latest did not disappoint me. It's set in the Shuswap region of British Columbia, on a family farm. The main character, Katrine, visits her aging parents to help them prepare in case an advancing forest fire forces them to evacuate. We meet Katrine's parents, her sister, her husband and her young son, and her parents' neighbour (and Katrine's former lover). We also get to know her grandparents through artifacts revealed during the packing up, and stories (sometimes reluctantly) told by family members. Most of the action takes place on the farm, evoking an intimate and often claustrophobic feeling. The storyline moves easily backward in time, as stories of Katrine's childhood, and her parents' and grandparents' early years are unpacked, dusted off and set out in the light of day.

I loved many things about this story. The characters are cleanly and beautifully drawn, and seem like people I have met, or do thing I have done myself. The son Jeremy responds to his mother's thoughts as if they were spoken out loud, and voices the obvious personal truths that all of the adults take pains to ignore or downplay. The husband Ezra, recovering from a stroke, speaks in a strange language of metaphors that is simultaneously beautiful and frustrating. Parents and grandparents are puzzling and reassuring, strong and helpless by turn, in that way that people are when we love them and know them so well we have trouble really seeing them. Ex-lover Jude is powerfully compelling, as he persists with his raku firing in his pottery studio, even as the forest fire advances.

The other thing I love is the detail of the setting and events. Like the characters, these are presented with just enough information to draw a clear and authentic picture, without bogging down the story. I've been enjoying Gail Anderson-Dargatz's website and reading about how found objects from her own family figure in the story, and how they helped the story take shape as she wrote it. She also talks about interviewing people about their own lives and experiences, and incorporating elements of these stories, along with experiences of her own life and people she knows, to make something that connects to the reader's own experiences.

Then there's the magical realism. Strangely, it didn't even dawn on me that this is part of all of Anderson-Dargatz's novels until I read it written by a reviewer somewhere. Premonitions, apparitions, extra-sensory perception, sensing the thoughts and feelings of others beyond normal reckoning - these things are all so organic to her characters (in this and her other novels) that it doesn't jump off the page and say "Hey! here's the other-world part of the story." It just fits perfectly naturally with the people and what's happening in their story.

Turtle Valley made me think about how things and people change and stay the same, and how our understanding of them and appreciation for them changes with experience and thoughtful and compassionate knowing. In this story, nature compels a major reckoning for a family, forced to make many painful decisions about changing or staying the same. There's a central mystery that is fully revealed in a satisfying ending that took me by surprise.

I am very happy to have read this novel. I recommend it without reservation. I have a borrowable copy, for my nearby friends and neighbours, but I will want it back. This is one that I'll read again for sure.

question: do you find aspects of yourself in the stories that you read?

mompoet - loving a good story

No comments: