Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reader's Diary #939- Lisa Moore: February

Shortly after Christmas a wonderful present arrived in the mail from the good people at CBC's Canada Reads: a set of all five of this years contenders. As I was on vacation when they arrived, I was late to begin and I'm hustling to have them all finished before the debates that begin on February 11th. In doing so, I've decided to read them concurrently, which might seem like a bit of madness. However, I very quickly realized it's the absolute best way for me to compare the books. The one I found myself returning to the most? Lisa Moore's February.

To further my case for Moore's book, hers and David Bergen's were the two I was least interested in reading when the contenders were first announced. Those were the only two authors of the lot that I'd read before, and while I enjoyed other books by them both, neither blew me away. But of the five, February has definitely come out on top so far.

I feel like I should add a disclaimer that I'm originally from Newfoundland and unashamedly admit that the descriptions of St. John's in February made me a bit homesick. However, I think I was mostly drawn to her power of observation. There were so many moments when Moore referred to the most mundane of life's moments, but ones that I've not ever seen in print before, that I wouldn't have thought to put in print, that I didn't even realize I had had in real life! There's a bit about a woman trying not to think about the fuzz on a peach as she bites into it because the texture gives her shivers. Me too! There's another line about the snap and rippling of plastic when the wind catches a kid's kite. Oh yeah, it does make that sound! And it's not just subtle details for the sake of details. Each beautifully crafted image expertly captures a mood or a character trait.

And her use of memory should make the book required reading for undergrad psychology students. February revolves around the Ocean Ranger tragedy of 1982, a disaster that certainly doesn't need any explanation for my Newfoundland readers, but in case you don't know... The Ocean Ranger was an offshore oil platform that sank during a blizzard. All 84 crew members on board perished in the frigid Atlantic ocean. The book deals primarily with Helen, a widow of one of those victims, and her life dealing with such a loss. The tricky part is that there isn't an obvious chronological order to the book, with vignettes that jump from before the disaster, to the present day, and various moments in between. There's somewhat of a frame however, if you keep in mind that most of the vignettes are Helen's memories. I'm not always crazy about lots of flashbacks, often finding the amount of recalled detail unrealistic. I'd be hard pressed to tell you what I had for supper yesterday, so how come I'm expected to believe a character can remember the colour of a t-shirt that her husband wore 30 years ago? But when I look at the nature of Helen's memories, it is totally believable when I think of what I learned from my own psych degree. Her memories are of tragic or other significant moments. During those times our senses are often sharper and we often do retain more of a scene that we would otherwise. Had I choked on a meatball at supper yesterday, I bet I could tell you today quite easily what I'd been eating. For that matter, I'd probably remember details that normally I'd have taken for granted— what time I'd eaten, what cup I used, what song was playing from my daughter's room. Moore adds to the realism by very occasionally acknowledge the gaps in the memories. When recalling a story about one of her daughters boyfriend's, the memory is briefly interrupted. "Aaron somebody," she thinks, "Or Andrew." And then she's right back into the recollection. There's another genius moment when Helen remembers Pink Floyd playing in her son's room. In the next paragraph Helen has a call from her daughter. "My water broke, Cathy said. I wish you were here." Was the "I wish you were here" what Cathy really said, or is it a faulty memory, confusing the lyric of the same titled Pink Floyd song with what Cathy had actually said? What a masterstroke of subtlety. The idea of memory being a central theme of the book is best captured when Moore, for Helen, writes, "You need a strong memory to love the dead, and it was not her fault that she was failing. She was trying, but no memory was that strong." Granted, Helen's memories put up a remarkable fight.

All that praise aside (and I'm still rooting for it in the Canada Reads debates), I don't think February is perfect. There's a minor plot involving Helen's son that doesn't really add anything to the book and I'm unclear as to why his life is singled out anymore than say one of Helen's daughters. And perhaps most damning, the plot is so very thin and slow. Granted, none of this year's Canada's Reads books are fast paced, so in terms of the competition, it isn't much of an issue. But for me, and how beautiful I found her writing otherwise, I can't wait for Moore to write a frickin' story. Now that book will get me excited.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Wait, you've never read Hugh MacLennan? I just realized that your feet are made of clay!

Seriously though, February does sound like a lovely book. I do admire skillful details that don't distract from the tale.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Nor have I heard that expression before. The clay's practically from the waist down.

Jules said...

John, you captured February perfectly in you're review. I loved how the author highlighted Helen's memories, it added so much to the book. As for John, I think he was more central because he was a lot older when his father died, maybe the author was trying to show how John's life shaped out to be because it was how the loss of his father affected him.

Perogyo said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of the Ocean Ranger tragedy. More studying for me!