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Fall on Your Knees

by Ann-Marie MacDonald

In a 1990 interview, Ann-Marie MacDonald said she is haunted by “the mythic place called Cape Breton,” and that her imagination projects “an aura of magic, of mystery” onto its landscape and residents. Predictably, her first novel – a saga spanning five generations of an Island family – is riddled with ghosts and saints and governed by a splice of Roman Catholic and Jungian magic: alchemical transformation, fertility quests, and shadow presences function as crafty plot devices.

Such complexity is typical MacDonald. Her Governor General’s Award-winning play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), is brilliantly imbricated with allusions to Shakespeare and Jung. And her more recent play, The Arab’s Mouth, skirts some of the thick thematic concerns of the novel, such as how we constantly pick at the tight tangle of family secrets. But Fall on Your Knees is not a retelling of, or a sequel to, MacDonald’s plays. By some sparkling shape-shift, MacDonald has been transformed into a novelist, the only clues to her dramatic heritage being a fervent use of rising action, reversals, and Shakespearean gender overlaps.

While other novelists have ventured into the Jungian dark – Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, for two – MacDonald’s feel for the requirements of drama keep her writing dynamic and prevents it from seeming derivative. When the wash of symbols threatens to flood the narrative field, MacDonald transports the story to higher ground. The tense plot, which signals MacDonald’s addiction to the mystery novel, does not require readers to play Spot the Archetype: it drives regardless. And MacDonald has used the skill of a method actor to develop characters – including many children – far beyond stereotype. While Atwood has been criticized for her mistreatment of male characters, the same cannot be said about MacDonald.

The principle patriarch, James, may be despicable, but MacDonald does not allow him to remain in the dull purgatory of masculine evil. In the First World War, James takes a post in a narrow strip of France and Flanders, and volunteers to “collect the dead and comfort the dying” in a zone that defines his turmoil:

“The mud between the opposing trenches is known as No Man’s Land. This is a reasonable name for a stretch of contested ground that has yet to be won by either side.… No man may enter, either stealthily on his belly alone, or noisily on two feet racing through glue with a thousand versions of himself firing, falling, on either side as far as the eye can see, and remain a man. It is possible to become a man once more if you make it back behind your line again, but you suspend your humanity for your sojourn between. That is why the place is called No Man’s Land.”

For most of the book, James is in limbo, wandering through a “foggy expanse of silent slime” where he is both frenzied provider for three daughters and a young Lebanese wife, and their defiler, made crazy and violent by prurient desire.

While MacDonald rejoices that humans are good and bad, she recognizes these same qualities in Cape Breton. The town of New Waterford, with its stunning landscape, murderous coal mines, and troubled ethnicities, is also characterized as a limbo that reflects and motivates the hearts of its residents. Along with the saga comes a history of New Waterford and, no less significantly, a map of the evolution of music at the turn of the century: from Victorian ditty through Puccini opera, speakeasy honky tonk, and Harlem gospel and blues. While MacDonald keeps the source of evil and the identity of the devil constantly in flux, she often allows the motivation for wrongdoing – the culprit – to be music.

Such a labyrinth might suggest a plot-heavy book short on style. But no. Though MacDonald’s prose is precise, it is not transparent or ordinary. Her dialogue and description construct a suitably powerful apparatus to support the burden of five generations of sin, guilt, and redemption. The narrative voice, which directs us to stand here and look there, that tells us, “Don’t worry, the sighing you hear is just the ocean,” is masterful.

“They’re all dead now,” the story begins, and this book is haunted. It is home to ghosts, cripples, cross-dressing piano players, and guardian angels (or is that the devil?) negotiating for release from limbo. They beg for our help: keep reading – finish this book – that we may rest in peace.