1123 The roots and effects of obsession
Burning the Night
by Glen Huser
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2021
$19.95 / 9781774390115
Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic
A novel with history on its mind, Burning the Night opens confidently as an attractive series of images and striking narrative portions: fictional Yarrow, Alberta in post-war Canada; an inquisitive, artistic youth residing in a house that has no running water; an unexpected trip to Edmonton in 1953; a visit with an urbane, chain-smoking aunt with “a tinkling, beautiful” laugh; a bohemian decor that reserves pride of place to a Tom Thomson oil painting and a pencil sketch of a “naked lady”; the boy’s disapproving, outraged, and disgusted mother; and whispered, last-minute advice (“You have the gift. Nourish it. Don’t ever let it be taken from you”) for the boy, Curtis, from the wizened lips of his blind and scarred aunt.
For young Curtis, Aunt Harriet and her rumoured qualities (her extravagance, taste, irreverence, and, according to his mother, the time she was sick in her mind) are magnetic. Curtis is beginning to search for alternative role models too. After all, his sensitivity, tendency to get caught up in swooning reveries, and aversion to physical activities have inspired his practically-minded mother to warn, “You don’t want people to be calling you a sissy.”
Harriet’s magnetic for readers too: why is she residing there and what’s the history of her maladies?
In that same opening chapter, Curtis mentions, “In hindsight, I can see we were kindred spirits, the old woman and the young man, with our dreams and denials.”
That “hindsight” is a tantalizing and increasingly frustrating aspect of Glen Huser’s sophomore novel. (A wartime baby like his protagonist, Vancouver’s Huser published a handful of YA novels following Grace Lake [NeWest, 1990]). Although Burning the Night follows Curtis well into middle age, revelations about his life and times progressively disappear as the novel unfolds. He’s often a cipher, a monastic keeper of the historical archive of someone else. That self-effacing quality results in a story whose protagonist serves no clear purpose other than relaying biographical details that belong to another. And yet, it’s Curtis and his social development after 1953 that could help energize the novel.
After losing touch with Harriet, Curtis renews their friendship when he’s a university student. Although Harriet doesn’t speak much of the present day, she’s enthused about chronicling episodes of her youth. In particular, she tells her nephew about poverty and about her hard-drinking father and his quest for employment, which takes the pair from Vancouver to Montreal; and, later, to Halifax in 1917 shortly before an explosion flattened parts of the city. Curtis becomes enchanted by the amorous part of Harriet’s past: her “improper” romantic attachment to Phillip, a wealthy, artistic, and resoundingly handsome playboy. Phillip was also an avid journal writer; Huser includes dozens of excerpts.
Settled into a long teaching career after Harriet’s death, Curtis remains fascinated by (and, later, arguably obsessed with) the wanderings of Phillip as well as the circumstances that kept the young lovers apart.
But when, for example, Huser portrays Curtis in the 1980s in a Vancouver apartment strewn with the documentary evidence of Harriet’s life, the narrator effectively disappears from the story. The apparent emptiness of Curtis’s life is not especially pointed to, nor is the degree to which he remains drawn to events from so long ago. Structurally as well, the story gets tangled with temporal complications. For instance, circa the 1990s, narrator Curtis is recalling his conversations with (or listening to recordings of) Harriet from forty years earlier, during which she recalled events from decades earlier, in 1915-1917. In some of the First World War journal entries (being read in 1990 or referred to in 1960), Harriet’s paramour Phillip also recalls reading letters; the nesting dolls narrative creates a surreal — and accidentally humorous — effect.
In the novel’s opening pages Curtis mentions “a spell was cast that caught me and held me for all the time I knew her and well past her death.” A reader might be interested in the psychology of a character so spellbound or curious about the bond between two artistic souls from different eras. But examining the roots and effects the obsession remains largely outside the scope of the novel.
Moreover, in those opening pages Curtis refers to Walter, his gay best friend since university (and, possibly his lover too: the novel is coy to the point of being obfuscatory about their relationship), and yet the character’s adult life is presented primarily as scenes in which he reads and reflects on journals from 1917 or listens to reels of Harriet’s taped words (e.g., “During a taping session, she told me, ‘I’ll always remember…. I remember…. I can’t remember’”) over and again. In such moments, he’s less a character than a function, a conduit. Never granted enough time in Huser’s novel, sharp-witted Walter does complain about Curtis’ obsession, “for most of his life with an old woman and an artist who died twenty-five years before he was born,” and he asks “where is your life, Curtis? Have you ever stopped to wonder that? Christ, half the time you’re a shadow — not a person.”
Since Husen knows what Walter knows, he evidently understands the problem or curious fact of an obsessive shadow of a character. Yet Curtis and his compulsive affinity for Phillip and Harriet in 1917 is not something Husen dedicates much effort to pursue. Like his protagonist the author appears certain that it’s Harriet and her ill-starred romance that’s worthy of the reader’s time. Of the daily lives of Walter and Curtis in 1961, 1975, or 1985, Husen remains fairly — and strangely — mum. It’s an absence that’s a hole in the centre of Burning the Night.
My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, will be out in mid-October with Now or Never Publishing. Editor’s note: Brett Grubisic has also reviewed books by Dustin Cole and George Ilsley for The Ormsby Review.
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