Fall on Your Kneesby Ann-Marie MacDonald
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"What a wild ride -- I couldn't turn the pages fast enough," Oprah Winfrey told her viewers as she announced Fall on Your Knees as her February 2002 Book Club selection. Set largely in a Cape Breton coal mining community called New Waterford, ranging through four generations, Ann-Marie MacDonald's dark, insightful and hilarious first novel focuses on the Piper sisters and their troubled relationship with their father, James. Winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, it was a national bestseller in Canada for two years, and it has been translated into 17 languages.
At the start of the 20th century, James Piper sets fire to his dead mother's piano and heads out across Cape Breton Island to find a new place to live, eventually eloping with 13-year-old Materia Mahmoud, the daughter of wealthy, traditional Lebanese parents. And so, from early on, Ann-Marie MacDonald establishes some major themes: racial tension, isolation, passion and forbidden love, which will gradually lead to incest, death in childbirth, and even murder. At the centre of this epic story is the nature of family love, beginning with the Piper sister who depend on one another for survival. Their development as characters -- beautiful Kathleen, the promising diva; saintly Mercedes; Frances, the mischievous bad girl, who tries to bear the family's burden; and disabled Lily, everyone's favourite -- forms the heart of the novel. And then there is James, their flawed father.
Moving from Cape Breton Island to the battlefields of World War I, to Harlem in New York's Jazz Age and the Depression, the tense and enthralling plot of Fall on Your Knees contains love, pain, death,joy, and triumph. The structure of the narrative is multi-faceted, richly layered, and shifts back and forth through time as it approaches the story from different angles, "giving it a mythic quality that allows dark, half buried secrets to be gracefully and chillingly revealed" (The New York Times Book Review). As the details of the labyrinthine plot are pulled together, the question of whether it is possible to escape one's family history gradually raises itself.
The book's epigraph, taken from Wuthering Heights, seems appropriate to a novel concerned with the different, often violent, forms that love can take. On the inexorable journey towards tragedy we encounter dark yet vivid images of neglect and violence, yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, and yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, shimmering with emotional depth, sensual with virtuoso descriptions of the power of music. It is a saga haunted by ghosts and saints, religious fanaticism and magic. MacDonald gives the most ordinary lives extraordinarily dramatic dimensions.
The Sunday Times wrote, "It is the unpredictability of this huge book that is its greatest joy." With allusions ranging from Hollywood stars to religious tracts, Fall on Your Knees simmers with vibrancy and crackling, effervescent, breathtaking language.
San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle
Detroit News Flash Free Press
The London Sunday Times
Time Out London
As the 19th century ends, young James Piper travels from the Breton hinterland to the civilized port of Sydney seeking his fortune, and in no time at all he acquires a child bride, a house built by his Lebanese father-in-law, and the everlasting enmity of his wife's powerful family. Although the ardor between James and his spouse soon cools, they now have a daughter, Kathleen, who seems destined for great things when her breathtaking voice and beauty begin to captivate all as she enters her teens. But another shadow falls on the family when James finds himself making improper advances to her. Appalled, he patches things up with his wife (two more daughters being the result), goes off to fight in WW I, and sends Kathleen to New York to study voice after he returns. All still isn't well, however, when she comes home pregnant six months later, then dies in childbirth when Mom slices her open to save her daughter's twins. One of them dies anyway, followed two days later by Mom, who commits suicide. James is left with three girls to raise, all of them scarred for life by the crisis: The newborn contracts polio when her aunt Frances, a child herself, tries to baptize her in a nearby creek; Frances is raped by James in his grief at losing Kathleen; the eldest, a witness to the rape, is also the one to find her mother's body. Such awful events, though quickly repressed, bode no good for the family, and ultimately tragedy overtakes them all.
A plate piled dangerously high with calamities, perhaps, but the time, place, and peopleespecially the childrenall ring clear and true, making for an accomplished, considerably affecting saga.
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book
Oprah's Book of the Month Club Pick, January 2002
Winner of the Dartmouth Book Award
Winner of the Canadian Authors' Association Award
Winner of the CBA Libris People's Choice Award
Winner of the CBA Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year
Finals for The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Finalist for the Giller Prize
Finalist for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award
Finalist for the Trillium Book Award
Finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction
"Magnetic… a dizzying leap into a mind so rich and complex you spend almost as much time marvelling how she got there as enjoying the results… Compelling and original… MacDonald succeeds brilliantly in building a world that, at least for the satisfying length of time it takes to finish Fall On Your Knees, gloriously supersedes all else." Financial Post
"Beautiful… this big, bold, epic shocker of a novel reads as if John Irving met Joyce Carol Oates. It is history told with a thumping, complex narrative… a host of colourful characters and a great big bow to psychology… Fall On Your Knees is the work of a big talent. It's a wild ride." Chicago Tribune
"[MacDonald is] a first-rate novelist.... [She] paints a Cape Breton landscape steeped in human emotion ... She has found the language of the heart that runs below everyday discourse.... There is no resisting this story." The Globe and Mail
"Ann-Marie MacDonald — one of Canada's most talented actors and playwrights — has provided us with yet another aspect of a talent that has no limits." Timothy Findley
"Brilliant... Profoundly and refreshingly different.... MacDonald has constructed a plot worthy of Victor Hugo... A standout." Vancouver Sun
"MacDonald is a master of exciting story-telling, of suspense and surprise." The Montreal Gazette
"... a narrative presence that can look at the unbearable, and sustain the emotion of it, and deliver it up edged in mordant wit."
—EDITOR'S CHOICE, Notable Books of 1996, The Globe and Mail
"... a multi-generational saga ... carried off with great assurance and style."
—Philip Marchand, CRITIC'S CHOICE, The Toronto Star
"... utterly compelling — a brilliant take on the black themes of racism, physical and emotional battery, sexual abuse, suicide, and murder."
—The Vancouver Review
"Stunning...The book and the talent behind it are big. The story is riveting, the characters achingly human, and the writing will take your breath away...[MacDonald] has leapt into the first rank of fiction writers."
"A delicious story, one of those sweeping family sagas to take on summer vacation and savor.... MacDonald is a master of exciting story-telling, of suspense and surprise. She has a dramatic touch that can elicit gasps from readers."
"Not a single line is superfluous in this richly layered tale of the secrets within several generations of a Canadian family."
—Publisher's Weekly starred review February 24th, 1997
"Here is an explosive mix of family feuds and incest, musical dreams and melodrama, all shot through with a fierce guilt... Fall On Your Knees is a heady, haunting brew, carefully structured, witty and distinctive."
—The London Observer
"Some wonderful writing has come out of Canada in recent years from such authors as Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood. Now they are joined by the multi-talented Ann-Marie MacDonald... She is already a successful actress & playwright. It seems almost unfair that she should have written a brilliant first novel."
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Read an Excerpt
THEY'RE ALL DEAD NOW.
Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, toward an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.
Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.
Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.
Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her housedress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad -- they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.
So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.
Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.
There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.
Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.
Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.
Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."
And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbor once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.
But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?
But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.
All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.
Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.
Copyright © 1996 by Ann-Marie MacDonald
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Meet the Author
ANN-MARIE MACDONALD is an author, actor, playwright and broadcaster. She trained as an actor at the National Theatre School of Canada and has appeared in numerous independent Canadian films. She earned a Genie nomination for her role in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, and won a Gemini Award for Where the Spirit Lives. She has performed in theatres across Canada, appearing in the Mirvish Production of Top Girls.
Her first solo-authored play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) won the Chalmers Award, the Governor General’s Award, and the Canadian Authors’ Association Award. Her other works for the stage include the libretto for the chamber opera Nigredo Hotel, book and lyrics for the musical Anything that Moves (which garnered several Dora Awards, including Outstanding New Musical), and Belle Moral: A Natural History.
Ann-Marie’s first novel, Fall on Your Knees, was a critically acclaimed international bestseller. It won the Commonwealth Prize, was a finalist for the Giller Prize, and won the People’s Choice Award and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. In 2002 it became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. It has been translated into 19 languages. Her second novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was an international bestseller, a finalist for the Giller Prize, and a Good Morning America Book Club pick. It has been translated into 13 languages.
She lives in Toronto with her partner and their two children.
- Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Date of Birth:
- October 29, 1958
- Place of Birth:
- Baden Baden, West Germany
- Graduate, National Theatre School of Canada Acting Program, 1980
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Incest, rape, racism, violence, forbidden homosexuality coupled with religious fanaticism and ridiculous allegory! The story is fascinating at first, and then dissolves into a tragically bleak portrait of the darker side of an unsympathetic group of people that have the misfortune to be related to one another. There is no doubt that the author is a compelling writer; the prose is often beautiful and brilliant but interactions between the characters are derivative and pretentious; those stories have been done more effectively before. Mostly, it seems as though MacDonald feverishly vomited every "bad" thought she ever had on to the page so that she could exorcise her own demons or come to terms with her own terrifyingly violent battles with horribly dysfunctional family relationships and religion. Granted, that can make for a powerful story, but in this case, it is simply a lurid, unoriginal mess that you are painfully embarrassed upon which to intrude. WARNING: it is likely that once you start the book, you will be unable to put it down. After a while you will keep reading because you have to know how it ends. Then you will shut the book, disappointed and furious that you invested so much time to read the whole silly thing. Despite the often lyrical prose, the book is simply not worth the time and emotional investment the author unsuccessfully attempts to evoke from the reader.
I found this book to be extremely well written, but dark and very disturbing. It left a pit in my stomach and kept me thinking of the messed up characters well after putting it down. There were points in the novel where I simply HAD to stop reading because I was so disgusted by the storyline and wasn't sure I could finish it. Though Im a firm believer that all stories should be told, (not just light fluffy ones), I would be hard pressed to recommended this book to anyone.
This novel shook me to the very core of my being. The twists and turns, smatterings of cultural revelations, use of setting as a character in and of itself, and the musings on family (what makes a family and what isn't a family) all merged together to make for an extraordinary novel. The book is really lyrical and dark at the same time. I recommend this book to readers who are ready for heavy content that causes you to think very deeply about the human condition.
If you want a redemptive story featuring characters that are 'real' but not consumed by incest or rapists (i.e. a challenging, yet ultimately uplifting, inspiring story), skip Fall on Your Knees and instead pick up 'In the Fall' by Jeffrey Lent or 'Shade of the Maple' by Kirk Martin. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am by Oprah's pick - a dark, depressing, unwieldy story.
I was amazed at how well this put was put together and written for it being her first book. I found it very interesting. I loved how it was written in many different perspectives. The book kept my mind at work with thinking of the possibilities and I was always wrong until of course the very end where everything unravels. I enjoyed this book very much and have loaned it to my cousin who can't put it down. I have just started reading her 2nd novel, The Way The Crows Fly, and I hope it doesn't disappoint me since she set the standard very high with Fall On Your Knees. : )
So I have heard of this book but just never got around to reading it. Take the time it is worth it! The writing style is different but keeps you alert. The story is compelling, mixing so many different human weaknesses and prejudices covering several generations. Another one of those cant put down books.
Fall On Your Knees was unlike anything I've ever read as far as the storyline goes. Just when you think you know, you realize you don't. Some parts were slow going, especially in the beginning but if you stick with it, you won't be disappointed. This book takes you through just about every emotion. Some areas were a little confusing but everything comes brilliantly together in the end. If you enjoy stories about the complicated (and in this book, downright grotesque) relationships within a family, you will really enjoy this book.
Utterly engrossing, engaging, horrifying, memorable, sympathetic .. hmm, maybe emotionally manipulative of the readers? Loved it, couldn't put it down - but felt guilty about that, like rubbernecking a car crash.
I LOVE this book!!! I was originally drawn by the fact that it was an International Bestseller, but then also by the fact that Oprah had chosen it as one of her book club recommendations. In addition, I love period pieces, so it struck a chord with me that this book would begin in the late 1800's and span a period of five generations. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and, honestly, I'm not a HUGE reader!! This book captivated me, tugged at my heart strings, and even made me cry. I would have preferred a slightly different ending (felt let down a just a tad), but am glad I read it and it's definitely one of my faves!!
After I finished this book, I went right back and started it from the beginning again. It was painful and poignant, but just wonderfully written. The characters come alive. It reminded me of She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb, the same rich reading. It does deal with some rough stuff, so if you are not up for that beware. Otherwise, you must read this book!
Long after you're finished reading this book, the characters resonate in your mind. You think of them and their situations and discuss their foibles, human weaknesses and strengths with everybody else you know who's read the book. The plot, character, conflict and settings are meticulously developed and a joy to read. Excellent work for a first novel! All the students I've recommended this book to, who have used it for Independent Study, have loved it.
I laud Anne-Marie MacDonald for a beautifully woven, finely crafted novel. I could read her prose forever. But what I cannot get past is the fact that this is typical of an Oprah pick: 500 pages of dysfunction with the requisite rape, incest and misery void of redemption. It seems the modern benchmark for literary greatness is who can pack the most suffering into one long story. Truly great novels leave me wanting more and are marked not by the suffering of the characters, but the degree to which they rise above their circumstances. There are writers who combine well-written novels (which includes careful editing that respects readers' own intelligence) with fully-developed characters in stories that are moving, but ultimately hopeful and inspiring.
Laced with Catholic practices and themes that besiege the everyday, common person who has been drenched in this religion, whether practicing or not. The author draws you in to the frailties of the human condition, without casting judgement on the perpetrator or the atrociously ,heinous act itself . Simultaneously you are left speechlessly , aghast , seeing through the eyes of both the perpetrator and victim .
I too found this book to be very well written but seriously shallow. I was eventually worn out by the running litany of modern "causes" that the author introduces into her story. As is almost required of the modern female feminist, there are the "evil white men" driving tragedy after tragedy, plunky women of all races and ethnicities trying to survive and love each other, racial issues by the score and "love" as only true response. By the time I got to the "shocking" climax that anyone could have seen by the middle of the book I was asking myself why I was still reading this book. And, of coarse, sexual identity issues had to be thrown in to boot. Yikes. If you want to read a liberal Bible of modern society this book is for you. Victimhood enshrined.
This is a great read for those who enjoy the drawn out inter generational drama!
This book was hard to put down. Nicely written story line about a Nova Scotia family coping with difficult issues.
This book is absolutely amazing!
Great book and great author!
This book is simply breathtaking! Every character described so richly and each scene colorful and emotional in its own way...I could not put this novel down. In essence, this book is beautiful.