The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty

bookcover-dancehall-yearsYou’ll be drawn in slowly but steadily to this complicated but engrossing family drama set on the west coast, starting just before World War II. The lives of several families living, working and vacationing in a coastal cottage and resort region remain intertwined over generations, surprising with revelations to the end, closing at the cusp of the 1980s.

Haggerty’s prose ranges from lush and entrancing to terse and compelling, swooping from grand descriptions of the towering landscape to the minutiae of intimate relationships and interactions. A carousel of vivid characters rotates around Gwen Killam, introduced as a child relishing the summers on Bowen Island but observing, if not comprehending, signs of tension as the community feels the strains and effects of war even from afar. Haggerty follows Gwen and the community as they all grow and change, realizing each character unflinchingly but with compassion for all their foibles and motivations, making this novel palpably relatable and unforgettable.

See also:
Pickle Me This review of The Dancehall Years (July, 2016)

Thank you to the publisher, Mother Tongue Publishing, for providing a complimentary copy of The Dancehall Years.

The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2016)

2016 reading list (so far)

Hope Makes Love, by Trevor Cole

I like to do a little check-in partway through every year to see how my reading is going. As I’ve done in years past, I’m taking a look around the halfway point (ish) in the year at the books I’ve read so far, with links where they exist to books that I’ve reviewed (either here on this blog or briefly on Goodreads). As I’ve always pointed out, it’s a competition with no one but myself, but it is always useful and interesting to stop and reflect a bit where one is at with one’s reading, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Here’s the quantitative part: Of the 34 books I’ve read so far this year, 7 were non-fiction, 9 were poetry and the balance of 18 were fiction (novels and short story collections). One book was a reread. One book was a work in translation. Twenty of the books were by Canadian writers. Two books were read aloud in their entirety (er, over a period of time, not in one sitting), which is a wonderful way to share the experience with another reader/listener.

On the qualitative front, I think it’s been especially good year so far. Apart from where I’ve reviewed a particular work, I can say in broad terms that I’ve enjoyed and can enthusiastically recommend everything I’ve read so far this year (with perhaps some qualifications for subject matter with which individual readers might be uncomfortable). Could this be why my overall reading count seems to be up so far this year? A happy reader is a prolific reader? Well then, here’s to happy reading!

  1. Hope Makes Love
    by Trevor Cole

  2. The Beauty of the Husband
    by Anne Carson

  3. Fates and Furies
    by Lauren Groff

  4. A Little Life
    by Hanya Yanagihara

  5. The Mark and the Void
    by Paul Murray

  6. Between You & Me
    by Mary Norris

  7. When Words Deny the World
    by Stephen Henighan

  8. The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl
    by Sue Goyette

  9. Just Watch Me – The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-2000)
    by John English
    (read aloud)

  10. M Train
    by Patti Smith

  11. All the Gold Hurts My Mouth
    by Katherine Leyton

  12. Birdie
    by Tracey Lindberg

  13. Innocents and Others
    by Dana Spiotta

  14. Don’t Be Interesting
    by Jacob McArthur Mooney

  15. Model Disciple
    by Michael Prior

  16. Tell: poems for a girlhood
    by Soraya Peerbaye

  17. Lightning Field
    by Dana Spiotta

  18. Providence
    by Anita Brookner

  19. Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments
    by Ulrikka S. Gernes, translated by Per Brask and Patrick Friesen

  20. Who Needs Books? Reading in the Digital Age
    by Lynn Coady

  21. Caribou Run
    by Richard Kelly Kemick

  22. The Mercy Journals
    by Claudia Casper

  23. Zero K
    by Don DeLillo

  24. Saints, Unexpected
    by Brent van Staalduinen

  25. All That Sang
    by Lydia Perovic

  26. Stone Arabia
    by Dana Spiotta

  27. The Quotations of Bone
    by Norman Dubie

  28. Independent People
    by Halldor Laxness

  29. I’m thinking of ending things
    by Iain Reid

  30. The Hatred of Poetry
    by Ben Lerner

  31. Thirteen Shells
    by Nadia Bozak

  32. Yiddish for Pirates
    by Gary Barwin

  33. History’s People
    by Margaret MacMillan
    (read aloud)

  34. The Cauliflower
    by Nicola Barker

Currently in progress:

  • The Dancehall Years
    by Joan Haggerty

  • Being a Dog
    by Alexandra Horowitz
    (read aloud)

  • Slow States of Collapse
    by Ashley-Elizabeth Best

How is your reading going so far in 2016?

Living with a Dead Language – My Romance with Latin, by Ann Patty

I’m delighted and honoured to welcome novelist and essayist Pauline Holdstock to the bookgaga blog. She offers a thoughtful examination of Ann Patty’s interesting memoir, both an exploration of Latin and celebration of learning and literature. Before we plunge into the review, allow me to introduce our esteemed reviewer:

pauline-holdstockPauline Holdstock is an award winning Canadian author, originally from the UK. She writes literary fiction, essays and poetry. Her novels have been published in the UK, the US, Brazil, Portugal, Australia and Germany. In Canada her work has been nominated for, and won, a number of awards.

Of her eight books, the most well-known are Into the Heart of the Country, longlisted for the Giller Prize, and Beyond Measure, short listed for a number of awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was the winner of the BC Book Prize Ethel Wilson Award. Pauline’s essays and book reviews have appeared in Canada’s national newspapers and have been broadcast on CBC radio. Her essay Ship of Fools was the winner of the Prairie Fire Personal Journalism Prize. Learn more about Pauline and her work at


A New York editor, laid off from her high-powered job and forced into early retirement, moves to the country and sets out to learn Latin as a way to keep her mind engaged.

It’s an interesting and unlikely concept: a journey into a dead language as a way forward into a rewarding new life. At the outset of her memoir, Ann Patty paints a convincing picture of the new life she doesn’t want — a future bereft of purpose, prey to the inherent dangers of boredom, not least of which might be the alcoholism that destroyed her mother’s later years. And indeed in the course of the book a new life does slowly take form, one where Patty finds a new community to replace her vanished world of publishing, as well as an absorbing new pursuit.

Living With a Dead Language is more than an account of the intellectual challenges Ann Patty faced in her self-imposed undertaking. It’s also a memoir that gives glimpses of her career in New York, reflections on her parents and sketches of her friends and partners. Ambitiously, Patty has attempted to marry personal memoir with the Latin topics covered in her college courses. Sometimes it works. The poetry of Catullus, for instance, is the perfect launchpad for the wicked ways of decadent and driven New York, and Lucretius’ philosophy the perfect entry to her forays into Buddhism and the personal crises that prompted them. At other times the connections felt contrived, superimposed.

Often, I found myself wanting to be reading a different book. Her scheme, I felt, was doing the book a disservice. It was limiting. She was glancing off too many interesting questions while squandering precious time laying out the grammar topics covered in her various academic courses and meticulously illustrating their complexity.

Although the Latin language was what drew me to her book in the first place — I still consider it the single most useful subject of my high school education and daily reap the benefits of being forced to learn it — I had no particular wish for a refresher course in the basics of grammar and syntax or an advanced course in their intricacies. A chapter would have been all Patty required to demonstrate the syntactical elements of the language and convince us that its mastery presented a daunting challenge — especially for an older student who hadn’t, as she confesses, had to memorize anything in close to thirty-five years. The linguistic passages felt to me like the author revising her subject, making sure it had stuck, perhaps, too, simply wanting to impress us. I’d have welcomed more pages devoted to the wealth of coincidental knowledge — like those she offers on Roman calendars, or marriages, or burial practices, for example — that the study of Latin inevitably confers.

The book would have benefited, too, from a more rigorous treatment of some of the connections Patty tentatively introduces. Observations on the subordinate role of Roman women, for instance, are linked too loosely to an evocation of the limited version of feminism that flourished in the 1970s and followed by a sketch of the kind of pervasive passive aggression that her mother’s generation suffered earlier.

The book’s very title prompted many questions and connections that were never fully addressed. What does it mean to learn any language, for example? How does that open the mind? Or alter one’s perception of one’s own culture? And what about recent research on the plasticity of the brain and the effects of language learning. And how might the experience of learning Latin in particular enhance the brain’s abilities, working as it must with the new word orders possible in an inflected language? And what effect did it have for Patty in her own recognition of Italian when finally she goes to Rome.

“Don’t tell me Latin isn’t alive and well in literature” she says after making an amusing but feeble link between Ovid’s and romantic (small R) novelists’ predilection for sexy tresses. But what of popular culture’s apparently ineradicable interest in myth and supernatural influence? An afterlife? And what of the persistence of certain literary forms right across our culture — the epic, the elegy? Of certain figures of speech in literature? Much later in the book she does edge closer to examining those questions in a moving recollection of the death of a dear friend when in an “elegiac funk” she buys a copy of Anne Carson’s Nox. But enquiry and argument are not her modus operandi. Her writing is governed by emotion and enthusiasm, much, I imagine, as were her editorial decisions.

Most of all I’d hoped to see some discussion or even acknowledgement of the connection between syntax and thought or on the role of grammar as vital link between intuition/inspiration/idea and expression. It’s a vast and boggy philosophical field and perhaps it’s obvious why Patty wouldn’t want to venture there, but not offer even an observation on its effects on her own critical thinking …?

Finally, and most frustratingly, she only brushes against the whole question of elitism implicit in the study of a dead language. Her fellow students are a privileged lot as she remarks early in the book. But she doesn’t emphasize the liberating potential of studying for study’s sake, surely the true privilege. That becomes clear, to this reader at least, when, later, Patty visits Still Waters. Still Waters is Stephen Haff’s after school sanctuary for decidedly un-privileged children. Patty visits and works with two nine year-olds carefully translating a Latin picture book. Latin is on offer Haff’s after school program, along with yoga and violin — three subjects to exercise the mind, the body, the spirit. There’s a Buddhist “purposelessness” to all of those pursuits, an escape from what Haff sees as the “soul destroying and deadening” core curriculum.

Clearly Patty recognized the value of what she witnessed at Still Waters and it’s to her credit that she went on to volunteer both her time and newfound expertise there and to facilitate a connection with a wider community. It’s interesting but not surprising that she derived a true sense of purpose and reward from the experience, something she doesn’t mention in relation to her entry to the elitist academia of the Latinists.

The chapter on this visit was, for me, the most intriguing and sent me straight to Google. Here’s a quote I found online — a testimonial, to use the Latin — from one of the children at Still Waters. It could well express the feelings too of Ann Patty — ever enthusiastic, ever up for a challenge, ever ambitious.

“I love Latin! Latin is a big, beautiful puzzle. It is a mystery to be solved. I feel brilliant here.”
Still Waters in a Storm

Friends reading aloud / #sundaysentence for July 24, 2016

bookcover-mammals-ontario“Although most of us will never see a Wolverine, the knowledge that it maintains a hold in remote forests may reassure us that expanses of wilderness still exist.”

from Mammals of Ontario by Tamara Eder
(2002 Lone Pine Publishing)

My Sunday sentence comes from one of many vibrant sentences read aloud on Saturday night. Four longtime friends gathered at a cottage by a lake, comfortably tired after a sunny day of swimming, dogwalking, birdwatching and more, comfortably full after a delicious and lovingly prepared meal, to read aloud to each other. The reading selections came from a charmingly eclectic range of sources:

Such a wonderful way to knit together a special weekend spent with beloved friends …

Enjoy more #sundaysentence selections here.

#sundaysentence for July 3, 2016

bookcover-independent-people“She blushed furiously in the darkness and had not the remotest idea what to do or say, especially as it was after midnight; for poetry was meant to be read aloud in the daytime, but understood in silence during the night.”

from Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Enjoy #sundaysentence selections here.

See also: Of sheep, lungworm, coffee, and poetry, and God, and a lot, lot more

Saying thanks to The Poetry Extension and other hard-working poetry purveyors

I was recently asked to offer a testimonial for an arts initiative called The Poetry Extension. I was happy to do so, as I’d very much enjoyed their first (I hope of many) productions:

Here’s what I had to say:

I’m both a poetry reader and attendee, where possible, of poetry readings. I enjoy both the word on the page and the word brought to life. I’m blessed to live in a city that has much to offer in the way of literary events most days of the week. The majority of those events happen because of hard work by organizers, performers, venues and contributors.

If you can’t get out and/or you aren’t blessed to live somewhere that has lots of live literary events, the next best thing are virtual events. What’s wonderful about virtual events – in addition to being able to enjoy them in your pyjamas – is that they can bring together artists and performers for whom it might be difficult to be together in the same city or on the same continent, much less the same venue. That’s where initiatives such as The Poetry Extension are so brilliant, and why I was so effusive about the first of their events in March, 2016:

Amazingly, this virtual event established a balance of both professionalism and intimacy that you might not think possible in a bunch of colliding video screens in different countries. All of the readings introduced unique poetry voices in a warm, friendly, accessible format. I look forward to more such productions, and hope that The Poetry Extension can get the support it needs to make more of them possible in future.

Live or virtual, not only is it wonderful to attend such events, but it’s really rather easy to say thank you for the time and effort that goes into these vibrant offerings. Even a tweet, a Facebook comment, a quick email message are all gratifying ways to let our artists, poets, writers, performers and organizers know they are appreciated, and to let others know about the eye-opening works and events that might just be a click away. (Note, for example, that the next Poetry Extension online gathering will be livestreamed on Wednesday, August 31, 2016.)

Let’s go to the FOLD!

I’m thrilled to welcome Margrit Talpalaru, who is going to share some terrific observations and enthusiatic praise for the recent inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which took place in Brampton, Ontario over the first weekend of May, 2016.

I regret missing the fest, but am grateful for the next best thing, seeing it through Margrit’s eyes. She brings a unique combination of the erudite and the fan girl to her observations, which I think you’re really going to enjoy. First, here’s an introduction to our literary festival guide:

Margrit has been going to school for many years, in spite of repeated decisions to stop. During those many years, Margrit changed schools, changed countries, changed roles, changed diapers, and tried hard to change the world.

Mostly, Margrit’s attempts to change the world have taken a written form. Here’s a list. Lately, Margrit has been hard at work trying to change genres, too, and make her foray into fiction.

Margrit blogs at, and tweets @MeMargrit.


“When queer / trans / poc writers are treated as artists as opposed to just spokespersons of our identities, it’s very liberating.”
(Vivek Shraya, 7 May 2016)

“So many wonderful things about @TheFOLD_ but esp. loved sharing space with diverse writers and not being forced to talk about diversity.” (Vivek Shraya, 7 May 2016)

Vivek Shraya’s tweeted contention emerged as the leitmotif running through the sessions of the inaugural Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which took place May 6-8 in the remarkable venue of the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA) in Brampton. Panelist after panelist echoed Shraya in remarking how crucial it is for diversity to become the assumption, rather than the subject of advocacy. In a panel about diversity in publishing, Bianca Spence said she had always been the one person of colour on staff, “but it’s not my job to teach my boss diversity.” What happens when the burden of proof and the need for validation are removed is a true celebration of diversity in literature, as the FOLD had set out as its mission in the first place. By this measure alone, the inaugural FOLD was a resounding success. But the Festival went far beyond merely fulfilling its mission statement, and the excitement around it can be easily gauged by the plethora of tweets under its hashtag #FOLD2016. (Go ahead and take a peek; I won’t tell anyone if you join the chorus.)

Isn’t this the point of diversity, that we can only achieve it collectively, rather than by token representation? That its value is intrinsic, rather than didactic or instrumental? That we, as a society should do everything to achieve it in all aspects not because it’s the concept du jour, but #becauseits2016?

The panelists’ consensus made me realize where the Festival drew so much of its energy from. The FOLD’s foundation on celebrating diversity leaves room to discuss the richness of all aspects of writing and publishing, as well as seek solutions to the disproportionate representation of people of different backgrounds, sexualities, abilities, and ages in literature and publishing. The choir needed no preaching to, so it just sang. In multiple harmonies.


The richness of topics and viewpoints carried through to the panel options: whether interested in craft, publishing, self-promotion, or genre, there was always a brilliant choice among the concurrent panels. The only problem I had was I wanted to attend them all, but since this was no fantasy, I had to pick, and not once did I feel short-changed, both because of the in-depth discussions in the panel themselves, as well as because of the cross-pollinating conversations among them during the breaks or through social media.

I was greedy in my attendance, and went to all types of panels on offer. I started out the day listening to a conversation on “Faith and Fiction,” between Vivek Shraya, Zarqa Nawaz, Ayelet Tsabari, Cherie Dimaline, moderated by Eufemia Fantetti. I am not even a little bit shy about fan-girling over the depth of the discussion, which emphasized cultural influences in the participants’ writing through the lens of faith or spirituality. Fantetti’s questions were both prodding and generous, and the panelists’ answers revealed their personal connections to their background, and their own interpretations of it in their writing.


Tsabari joked that “Growing up Jewish in Israel, we didn’t have to practice Judaism; we were just naturally good at it.” Shraya emphasized the crucial importance of representation, noting that “Queer kids had to be creative about where they found role models, so I found it in Hindu iconography,” with its more fluid gender boundaries. Nawaz spoke about the politicization of Islam, and how that creates generic expectations for her writing. Because of the portrayal of Muslims in the media—especially in the US—Nawaz suggested that writing a domestic novel about a Muslim woman can be transgressive. Dimaline shared the story of her upbringing in the Georgian Bay Métis Community, and the honour and responsibility of becoming a storyteller: “It’s the job of community’s story-keepers to provide a blanket of safety and spirituality and to uphold the duty to the seven generations.”

Next up, Aga Maksimowska moderated the panel on “Publishing (More) Diverse Canadian Stories,” which gathered publishing professionals from different branches of the industry. The panel description was

“From acquisition to acquired reading, industry professionals Anita Chong (Penguin-Random House), Barbara Howson (House of Anansi), Rachel Thompson (ROOM Magazine), Bianca Spence (OMDC), and Susan Travis (Scholastic Books) discuss ways to improve access to diverse, Canadian stories at home and beyond Canadian borders. Animated by Leonicka Valcius, this session is designed for industry professionals.”

However, the popularity (standing-room only) of the panel demonstrated that festival participants from all aspects of the book universe were hungry for answers and solutions.

We were not disappointed, as the panelists all focused on solutions, and how to proceed in the future, rather than on rehashing the obstacles. Thompson, for example, explained how the Room Editorial Collective restructured itself with an eye on including editors from different backgrounds before the “Women of Colour” issue was published. Chong echoed the notion of inclusion cautioning decision-makers to “be cognizant of who gets a voice at the table, because inclusiveness and quality are not mutually exclusive.” The unanimous conclusion pointed to the interconnection between the different aspects of the publishing industry: Spence emphasized the need for arts funding for the stories to be written in the first place; Howson challenged publishers to look for voices from around the world; Travis urged marketing and sales departments to ask book sellers why they’d think they would not sell diverse books, as well as push them not to insulate different voices in boxes, but put them on their genre shelves instead.

These are only three of the five panels I’ve attended. And I’ve only gone to one day of the Festival, so I hope this quick glimpse convinces you that my title was not a cheap pun, but genuine advice: the FOLD has only just begun, but it is sure to become a touchstone for literary and publishing conferences, so I know I’ll get my day passes as soon as they appear next year, and I hope you will, too.

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, by Sue Goyette

bookcover-brief-reincarnationSue Goyette’s The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl has left me breathless and heartbroken by a tragic story uniquely depicted. Goyette’s series of linked poems has also left me awestruck once again at her singular gifts for evoking emotion and revelations through startling juxtapositions of animate and inanimate, real and imagined, quick and dead, soulless and spiritual.

Those gifts were on fine display in her 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Ocean. In those poems, she brought the ocean to life as a full character, brimming with capriciousness, mischief and even menace as it interacts with the community that relies on, reveres it, cherishes it and fears it.

Goyette’s startlingly unique takes on the many people who failed an abused child might seem inexplicably frivolous and irreverent at first glance.

“Her prescription pad was important to the doctor.”

“The girl’s father had been prescribed aluminum foil.”

“The lawyer prayed for a parking space.”

“The girl’s mother, without telling the doctor, had taken
double her dose of television and had neglected
to take any of her patience.”

In fact, the tone of muted whimsy serves cumulatively powerful purposes over the course of the collection. In its way, it enables the reader to not turn away, as a more baldly stated account of the child’s fate would likely do. It defuses the power of the selfishness, perversity, cruelty and neglect visited on an innocent, and reduces pointedly to ridiculousness the factors and the pathetic figures that contributed to her death. At the same time, that fairy tale-like tone captures a child’s spirit and ultimately offers hints of hope and redemption, felt in this unconventional eulogy’s final lines:

“… several seasons later,
the tree surprised the bear by flowering; its fruits a succulence
that chimed with her loss a new kind of nourishment.”

The tactile warmth of another finely crafted Gaspereau book, emblazoned with a specially commissioned woodcut by George Walker of a bear – the child’s one protector – add to this singular collection’s approachability on a subject typically of despair.

The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl
Sue Goyette
Published by Gaspereau Press
2015 / Poetry / $19.95
9781554471461 / Trade paper / 64 pp

A Slim Green Silence, by Beverly Rycroft

With literary life force Kimmy Beach at the guest reviewer controls, we’re not only in for a treat, but we’re going to learn a lot. First, let’s meet our bookish guide:

Kimmy Beach’s fifth book, The Last Temptation of Bond (The University of Alberta Press, 2013), was chosen as one of the best five poetry books of the year on Quill & Quire’s 2013 Readers’ Poll. The book was longlisted for the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, and was featured on CBC Radio One’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.

Kimmy’s poetry, fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in journals across the country and in the UK, and she has read across Canada. Her second book, Alarum Within: theatre poems, has been adapted as a full-length stage play by both the University of Toronto and the Red Deer College Theatre and Film Studies Programme. She’s working on a novella about a giant puppet, and a novel featuring 1970s romance comics and This is Tom Jones (1969-1971). Kimmy holds a First Class Honours Degree in English from the University of Alberta, and lives in Red Deer, Alberta with her husband, Stu.

Constance (Connie) West is the narrator of Beverly Rycroft’s first novel, A Slim Green Silence. Connie has died, but she’s not yet left Scheepersdorp—her small South African town. Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away. We know this within a few sentences as Connie herself tells us. Rycroft gives us this fairly familiar premise in which to place her narrative and its central character. Connie says, “Below this cluster of roofs are all the people I ever loved.” But A Slim Green Silence is far more than the story of an earth-bound soul peering in on her loved ones’ lives going on without her, and trying to decipher why she’s still here. It is also an allegory for a country on the verge of redefining itself.

Rycroft’s drawing of Connie is sharp and unflinching. Despite her declaration of love for the people she’s left behind, Connie makes no bones about her ambivalence when her daughter Marianne is born. She actively ignores the child, and is happy to let everyone else raise her. Everyone else includes her sister Sheila, her “uncle” Harry, and their domestic worker, Princess, who rules the place with an iron fist.

From her vantage point outside the windows of her former home, Connie’s spirit watches life carry on without her. She grows more affectionate toward those she took for granted: particularly Marianne. A boatman accompanies her, waiting to take her to the other side. The image of the boatman (or ferryman) is a common figure in narratives of this kind, in which a dead character is tied to the place he or she lived and needs to be ferried to the other side. Rycroft’s boatman, however, differs in that he himself has been wounded. Rycroft writes that he “doesn’t seem to notice the red-black stain seeping through the blue fabric on the left side of his chest.” The boatman stays by Connie’s side and gives her until half past six that evening to find what she needs to set herself free.

The idea of this time limit appeals to me, and I like that Connie (and perhaps the boatman as well) is on the clock and yet powerless to make her former friends and family move more quickly to help her discover what will release her. As the family prepares for Connie’s memorial, Rycroft gives us flashbacks to when Connie was alive. Now, she searches for meaning and for the missing puzzle piece that will set her soul free.


The image of an unruly, almost unbearably loud pandemonium of parrots runs through the book, humorous and lyrical at turns. The parrots roost in an ancient yellowwood tree on Connie’s property, on an untended plot of ground that is a point of contention between Connie and her neighbours. The parrots fly out of the yellowwood at 6:30am every day to strip Harry’s pecan trees bare: “immediately, the sky will cloud over and a rippling orange-green carpet of parrots will tear through the valley to drop to the plot below.”

Wild parrots are largely unfamiliar to a North American reading audience, but the image of noisy birds in organized packs is nothing we haven’t seen. On any July morning in a tree-filled suburb in Alberta, the families of baby magpies would try the patience of Saint Monica. Rycroft speaks to the universal with images like this, and reminds us that birds are birds and people are people, no matter where they are. Connie remembers her mother, who “didn’t seem to care what [we] did, so long as we did it outside.” I had an instant flash of recognition remembering my own mother’s admonition when we claimed—dramatically—that we were dying. “Die quietly,” she’d say. “And do it outside.”

These touches—and the strength of the story itself—do not alienate the reader from the South African setting. Rather, they draw us in with their reminders of our shared experience. Beverly and I connected via social media and briefly discussed my reading of her book. I point to the wide-reaching accessibility of her narrative as during our conversation, she had expressed a touch of worry that the Afrikaans and Xhosa phrases might be off-putting for a North American reader. Because there is no glossary in the book, she offered to translate the phrases for me if I stumbled on anything I didn’t understand. I told her I felt confident that because I’d read a good number of South African books, I was sure I’d be able to read the expressions in context.

As a great believer in meeting an author halfway and not wanting to have anything spoon-fed to me, I went into the book with my Afrikaans dictionary nearby. But I didn’t need it. That’s not a commentary on how many words I know; rather, it shows Rycroft’s tremendous skill in giving us a little of the language without the need for a glossary. Her sentences are seamless and incorporate other languages without the narrative losing pace or drive. Even if a reader knew not one word of Afrikaans, I don’t know a reader anywhere who would not understand this: “As they reach the back step of the stoep, the dogs inside the house start to tjank.”


A Slim Green Silence is set in 1994: the year of South Africa’s first democratic election following the end of apartheid. I think it’s no accident that Connie dies that year. The transformation she undergoes as she tries to understand why she cannot leave seems to parallel the great changes 1994 brought to South Africa.

Constance’s name is in itself a metaphor, I believe. The elections of 1994 brought about an end to the troubled but constant rule of apartheid. Constance’s death coincides with the death of the oppressive structures that had been holding South Africa and its peoples hostage for decades.

Connie is able to stay near her family long enough to know that they will be preserving the overgrown plot of land, including her beloved yellowwood tree. If the plot of land represents South Africa itself (as I think, on one level, it does), then she is earthbound until she knows that her loved ones and her home—her country—are safe.

As the ferryman rows her away:

For the first time, he smiles.

      It’s like the sun coming out. It’s more like a flash of lightning in a midnight storm. For those few dazzling seconds, the landscape ignites and everything is clear and comprehensible: the lake, the murky sky, the last pinpricks of light from Scheepersdorp. Even the darkness crawling towards us from the nearby shore. […]

      The Boatman can see all this, too. His sloe eyes are larger than the moon. They see everything. They contain everything. I want to lean forward and brush my fingertips against the skin of his hand, but already the edges are starting to dissolve.

If Connie’s plot of land represents South Africa, I like to think of the ferryman as the wounded heart of that country setting Connie and itself free at the same time.

In 1994, there will be challenges and difficulties for the family in the preservation of Connie’s plot of land, just as there will be challenges and upheaval as the edges start to dissolve in her post-apartheid country. Without being heavy-handed, Beverly Rycroft parallels Connie’s personal search for meaning and eventual freedom with the birth of a new South Africa.

A Slim Green Silence by Beverly Rycroft (Umuzi/Random House, South Africa, 2015)

My thanks to Helen Moffett for her editorial eye on this piece.


See also:

Guides, Drinks and Stacks of Books: My Journey into South African Literature
By Kimmy Beach
(first published in WestWord: Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, 35:6)

Heaven sent
Samantha Gibb is enthralled by A Slim Green Silence, Beverly Rycroft’s beautifully crafted debut