#623 Leave the man in the ditch
Bina: A Novel in Warnings
by Anakana Schofield
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Knopf Canada), 2019
$29.95 / 9780735273214
Reviewed by Paul Headrick
The narrator of Anakana Schofield’s Bina, a Novel in Warnings is an elderly woman, more-or-less trapped in her house near Castlebar, Ireland. While awaiting possible trial on an unspecified criminal charge, she writes a memoir. What is Bina accused of? Why has a group of “Crusties,” proto-hippie activists, gathered outside her house to support her in her conflict with the state? Who is the mysterious “Tall Man” and the “Group” he leads, who are somehow connected to Bina’s troubles? Bina doesn’t tell us, not directly.
The memoir is fragmented, reflecting its method of composition. Ensconced in her home, Bina writes on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, etc. The subjects of her recollections include her activities assisting the “Tall Man,” and they also often return to Eddie, the exploitive, violently abusive man she lived with for some time. Eddie intruded himself into Bina’s life through what she believes was the stratagem of crashing his motorcycle into the wall outside her house. Thus Bina’s first warning: “If you ever see a person lying in a ditch, drive straight past them as fast as you can.”
Bina’s reluctance to fill us in on the details of her situation generates some initial tension, the kind that’s retrospective. We want to know what happened, not what’s going to happen. It’s a risky narrative strategy to be coy in this way, one that can easily come to seem artificial or manipulative. Bina’s withholding has a certain justification — she doesn’t want to risk providing evidence for her accusers — but it’s not entirely persuasive. She herself says, “Follow the trail. Follow the trail I am giving you here. And speculate.” It doesn’t take long for speculation to produce clarity, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the Group, including Bina, has been helping people to end their lives. The Crusties are activists who support the right to assisted suicide, but Bina doesn’t see herself as a cause. More than anything, she would like to be left in peace.
As we become certain of what Bina has been up to, our interest shifts away from past mysteries. The possibility of a criminal trial remains, but that potential doesn’t take up much of Bina’s attention, and neither does it draw ours. So, Bina generates no persistent tension through a question about what has happened before the narrative began, or any expectation that anything of consequence is going to happen. What we have is the kind of novel that, lacking much plot, some call a tour de force, or experimental (shifts in point of view from first person to third, along with Bina’s occasional footnoting of her own work, contribute to the effect). It’s a modernist story that relies overwhelmingly for its interest on voice, the character implied by that voice, and our feelings for her.
Here is Bina, early in the novel, on the important topic of Eddie:
Every time the thought revisits me that I should have left him in that ditch. I am thinking it as I write this to you. I’m warning you not to lift men out of ditches and don’t trust the common declaration “all he needs is a bang on the head.” Eddie received a big bang on the head when he landed off his motorbike in my ditch and there is no evidence of it improving him.
Bina’s caution is a familiar one. Who hasn’t heard that women make a mistake when they think they can rescue and improve a man? Bina wins our admiration for her forthrightness and her humorously literal use of Eddie as an example of vicious male incorrigibility. She elicits our sympathy for her frustration with the destructive bromides her world offers women.
It’s easy to imagine a novel in which a character learns this lesson about men over the course of events, but Bina knows it from the beginning. Will her view be challenged?
Here she is again, close to two hundred pages later:
Sacrifice is a stupid thing that women do.
Don’t do it.
The men don’t notice.
And all the women around spend their lives mopping you up.
So you’re only making more and more work for the women who’ll have to repair you.
That’s more than a warning.
It’s an order.
Be prepared to be unpopular.
Once again, part of the pleasure derives from Bina’s blunt delivery of essentially the same familiar truth. She is angry, she’s fed up, and she doesn’t have any hope of changing her situation in a positive way. But she’s still capable of a comic yet serious clarity about women’s lives, and she refuses to accept any pat understandings of her world.
Surely for many readers this consistency will be a quality to admire, and it will sustain the novel. The chief pleasure will be in appreciating Bina’s wry stubbornness, sharing in her anger, nodding assent to her complaints and seeing the truth in her warnings. Schofield’s dedication, “For every woman who has had enough,” indeed makes it clear that she anticipates at least some readers will identify with Bina.
But, just as surely, for others this consistency will be a problem. Bina doesn’t change. She is justifiably angry with a sexist world — whether represented by Eddie, the Tall Man, the official authorities, or the Crusties — that refuses to allow her autonomy. The novel shares that anger so thoroughly that there’s little room for any ironic distance between novel and character, and little room for moral complexity. Readers are likely to believe in Bina and enjoy her language, but a novel’s unwavering insistence that its main character deserves our admiration and sympathy, and that these feelings should sustain our reading throughout, will evoke resistance in some. It will undermine that positive response and make the work dull.
Schofield’s first two novels, Malarky (Biblioasis, 2012) and Martin John (Biblioasis, 2015), received great acclaim. They’re similar to Bina: a Novel in Warning in their modernist reliance on voice. I suspect that readers who appreciated them will also find much to enjoy in Schofield’s latest.
Paul Headrick is the author of a novel, That Tune Clutches My Heart (Gaspereau Press, 2008; finalist for the BC Book Prize for Fiction), and a collection of short stories, The Doctrine of Affections (Freehand Books, 2010; finalist for the Alberta Book Award for Trade Fiction). He has also published a textbook, A Method for Writing Essays about Literature (Thomas Nelson, 2009; 3rd edition 2016). Paul has an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught creative writing for many years at Langara College and gave workshops at writers’ festivals from Denman Island to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is a mentor for the graduate fiction workshop in The Writer’s Studio at SFU. Editor’s note: Paul Headrick has also reviewed books by Deni Ellis Béchard, Linda Rogers, Kathy Page (Dear Evelyn), Kathy Page (The Two of Us), and Karen Charleson for The Ormsby Review.
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