Halfway through Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s debut novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning, I flipped to the publication data expecting to confirm my suspicions that the author was born sometime around the Great Depression. She wasn’t. Entering the world in 1963, Anderson-Dargatz is a contemporary of Douglas Coupland and the Gen-X set. Such is her power in evoking time and place. This a remarkable debut.
Anderson-Dargatz casts a look back to WWII and re-creates the struggles of Beth Weeks, a young woman living with her parents and brother on a farm in British Columbia. The relentless pace of life on the farm – milking the cows, cooking for the field hands, canning, preserving, harvesting – is compounded by the Weeks’s domestic problems. Not only must she contend with poverty as her father struggles to eke out a living, Beth also suffers the consequences of a father whose mental stability precipitously declines after staving off a bear attack. The attack turns a caring and gentle person increasingly paranoid and aggressive. An unprovoked fight with a man in town, coupled with an escalating land dispute between her father and the neighbouring farmer, sees the family’s status reduced to community outcasts. Frustrated, inarticulate, and angry, John becomes a sexual predator in his own house, molesting his daughter while his wife, unable to acknowledge her husband’s transgressions, withdraws from the situation by conversing with her dead mother.
In spite of John’s actions, he does not end up assuming the clichéd role of monster. His problems are an extreme manifestation of the malaise that has settled in the area. Between the local Indian reservation and town, there’s a Deliverance-like preponderance of inhabitants who are either mentally unstable or physically disfigured. In the midst of this banjo duel of deformity, a miasma of fear has descended as a result of the suspicious death of a young girl. Officially, her demise is attributed to a rabid bear, though some think the area’s hermit, Coyote Jack, is the culprit, and still others believe it is the spirit of a coyote who is responsible.
All this has the effect of turning Beth’s only refuge, the bush, into a minefield of real and imagined predators. It’s a testament to Anderson-Dargatz’s skill as a writer that in spite of this besieged backdrop, The Cure for Death by Lightning is a coming-of-age story that is as beautiful as it is uplifting. The struggle to find love in such an emotionally barren landscape, and Beth’s dignity in the face of massive dysfunction, make her a remarkable heroine. The novel has culled the best from many fictional worlds – including Márquez’s magical realism, Faulkner’s Gothic claustrophobia, Ondaatje’s lyricism, and Flannery O’Conner’s engaging outcasts – to create a work that is startlingly original, and a welcome addition to the literary continuum. With Knopf’s push to publish and promote new writers, The Cure for Death by Lightning will almost certainly receive the attention it richly deserves.