In 1910, the American Journal of Insanity published the dubious Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test, used by its authors to assess the sanity of those who responded to a list of 100 seemingly innocuous words -- butterfly, citizen, short, carpet, square, etc. In her ingenious, resonant first novel, the Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen takes those same 100 words as chapter titles to create a structure for the life of a woman named Joanna.
If "average" means as uncelebrated as most of us, Joanna is an average person. She is imaginative, optimistic, occasionally plagued by "nerve-racking dreams of disgrace and forgetting," respectful to her parents (who don't understand her), a good citizen and a diligent housekeeper, a loyal girlfriend and dutiful wife, a tender mother and an interested cook. She's also secretly vain, uncertain, had a passionate affair with a married man in her youth, wonders why she still feels bad about herself since her childhood wasn't traumatic, is indiscriminately angry at her aging father, and sometimes inexplicably rigid with or resentful of her mild, supportive husband.
Schoemperlen has taken on the banal particulate of the everyday to question what words like "life" and "love" really signify. Why is it, Schoemperlen's heroine wonders, that she can recall every ugly detail of her mother's brown plaid dishes, but when her own baby is born, "what she does not, cannot, will never be able to remember, is exactly how she feels at that moment of first cradling between her sore breasts his small head"?
Despite all of her bafflement, Joanna is sometimes surprised to find herself face to face with happiness and a real life that started without announcing itself. Her grateful, fleeting recognition of the gravity of her life is as close as any of us will ever get to knowing what we're all doing here, and that is what Schoemperlen reminds us of -- gently, genuinely, and very, very quietly. -- Salon