Smart and sassy girls are the focus of Cordelia Strube’s latest novel, a masterful blend of comedy and tragedy that delves into contemporary family life. At the heart of the book is 11-year-old Harriet, who tries to cope with the ineffectual adults around her by chanelling her considerable energy into creating art and earning money to run away. Harriet wants to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Tom Thomson, by fleeing to Algonquin Park to paint the fall colours.
The novel opens in the summer; Harriet’s plan is to get away in October. She does a variety of chores for the many seniors of the Shangrila, the low-income apartment building in Toronto where she lives with her mother, Lynne, Lynne’s partner, Gennedy, and Harriet’s seriously ill little brother, Irwin, who suffers from hydrocephalus. Trent, Lynne’s ex-husband and the father of her children, is in a new relationship with Uma, a graduate student in women’s studies who is desperate to get pregnant.
Trent is immature and selfish almost beyond belief, but Strube manages to make him both feckless and utterly believable. He could not deal with his son’s health problems and left; apart from funding Uma’s fertility treatments and ejaculating into a cup when required, the only thing he seems to care about is cycling. Lynne and Gennedy are focused on Irwin, who spends much time in the hospital undergoing countless surgeries and needs to be monitored constantly for seizures. Gennedy is committed to Lynne, but is a bit of a financial leech, despite being a criminal lawyer. Harriet cannot stand Gennedy, and resents Irwin while also loving him. Irwin, for his part, adores his big sister.
Strube has keen insight into the minds of young people. The novel’s third-person narration is dominated by their perspectives – richly complex and thoughtful, while also quite cognizant of the fact that they are children and the adults in charge of them appear hopeless. This narrative strategy works wonderfully, and Strube’s experience as a playwright shines in the dialogue of every single character.
Strube has a genius for revealing the layers of conflicting feelings to which human beings are often subject. She also has a gift for seeing the humanity in all her characters – even Trent, though it is easy to agree when Lynne calls him an asshole. The tapestry of humanity that Strube presents is richly detailed and profoundly moving.
The novel explores the notion of family through many iterations, with the conventional nuclear family appearing only rarely. Harriet’s new (and only) friend, Darcy, a 12-year-old with an astonishingly foul mouth, lives with her mother, Nina; her father, Buck, tries to reunite with his family while also continuing his relentless quest for sex with, well, almost any woman. Also living in the Shangrila is a young wife and mother whose husband regularly beats her up.
And then there are the seniors. Harriet earns a tidy little income running errands for them to the neighborhood store or farther afield to the Shoppers Drug Mart. She is an exceptionally resourceful girl – she charges a quarter for each excursion – but is not above dumpster diving for art supplies when necessary. (As someone who scavenged garbage cans in back alleys as a kid, I feel a deep kinship with Harriet.) We also get to know Mr. Hung, who owns the local convenience store.
The sad irony of Harriet’s life is that even though she is surrounded by people with whom she is able to connect, she remains appallingly lonely. The novel offers some suggestions as to how her situation could be mitigated, but Strube is careful to shy away from easy solutions. In life, there simply aren’t any. Suffering is an inescapable part of living, the novel recongnizes, and people suffer in countless ways. Irwin and the abused wife suffer physically, but all the novel’s characters are prey to emotional suffering, and Strube’s narrative deftly illustrates the various ways in which emotional pain can be much worse than the physical kind.
Strube takes her title from John Keats’s sonnet “To Homer,” which opens the novel. The poem refers to Homer’s blindness, and one of the central themes in this book is the necessity of seeing and understanding, and the recognition that this process can be painful. Reading this novel is painful at times, but there is also a great deal of light.