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. --
Joanna is a collage artist, an appropriate calling for the protagonist of one of the finest montages of language to head south from Canada since Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. In her first novel, Schoemperlen (author of The Man of My Dreams, 1990, and three other story collections) has taken 100 words from the 1910 Kent-Rosanoff Word Association Test and used each as a chapter title. The result is an elegant pastiche of forms that conveys-in non-chronological free-association-the story of Joanna's everywoman life. Unlike Joanna, who ``begins to see her life in sections... so that [except for her parents] none of the characters from one stage leak forward into the next,'' the narrative bleeds across time: one chapter tells of all the houses Joanna has lived in or has wanted with the three loves of her life. These men are Henry, a guitar-playing truck driver; Lewis, her married lover, an artist who compartmentalized well enough to work on several paintings at once; and Gordon, the man she married. Most poignant, however, perhaps are the vignettes with Joanna's father and son. Widower Clarence seems to take his bitter wife's death as ``the end of possibility''; Joanna's young son, Samuel, filters word and meaning with the same nimble clarity as his mother. With this novel, Schoemperlen triumphantly establishes her literary credentials. 25,000 first printing; $25,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Feb.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Using chapter titles like "River," "Wish," "Sleep," "Short," "Comfort," and 94 other stimulus words from a common word association as a springboard, Schoemperlen tells the story of Joanna, from her childhood as the daughter of a bitter, angry mother and a quiet resigned father to her love affairs, marriage, and motherhood. Joanna discovers that her early ideas of romance fade in the reality of a passionate relationship with a married man, the complicated feelings of guilt and sorrow as she watches her father age, and her intense love for her son. A marvelously evocative writing style that will resonate with most readers overcomes the novel's one real weakness-of all the characters only Joanna is truly three-dimensional; the others are seen in profile, as they relate to Joanna's life. Still, if we judge by this first novel, which was shortlisted for the 1994 Books in Canada/Smithbooks First Novel Award, Schoemperlen has the right stuff to join the list of other Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields. Recommended for most public libraries.-Nancy Pearl, Washington Center for the Book, Seattle