1168 Islands are for overcoming

Fishing for Birds
by Linda Quennec

Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2019
$22.95 / 9781771336130

Reviewed by Paul Headrick 

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Fishing for Birds tells the stories of three women who live on islands: Kate, a widow in her thirties, has settled in a small cabin on the fictional BC Gulf Island of Britannia; Kate’s mother, Nora, is a long-time resident of a town on Vancouver Island (in what I and surely many others think of as Jack Hodgins country); and Ivy, a teenaged girl from Canada, is staying with relatives on Isla de Pinos (now called Isla de la Juventud), off Cuba. The first two strands of the narrative are set in this century, while Ivy’s takes place in the 1920s.

Kate, the character who gets the most attention of the three, is struggling in the aftermath of the death of her husband and his parents in a car accident, thus her retreat to her island hide-away. She needs to distance herself from her hometown, especially but not only from Nora, her domineering mother, who is unable to distinguish between her daughter’s needs and her own wants. Kate mostly keeps to herself, though she befriends an elderly woman whom she helps care for, and gradually she allows an unusual man, Luke, to enter her thoughts and her world.

In Nora’s section of the narrative, we see that the psychologically dishonest structure of her attitude to her daughter Kate applies to all her relations with the world, from her husband to everyone in her small community, in which she is something of a force. She can’t see the possibility of difference between what would please or be most convenient for her and what everyone else should recognize as right and good. Her daughter’s escape from her influence doesn’t exactly produce a crisis, but in a way it’s a precipitating incident parallel to the accident that takes the lives of Kate’s husband and in-laws. It combines with some other events to turn her inward.

Linda Quennec lives near Vancouver

Ivy’s story, set many decades earlier, is gracefully connected to the present time, as we see her not only as a girl entering adulthood while on something of a tropical idyl, but as an elderly woman, for in the novel’s present she lives on Britannia, and it is she whom Kate cares for and learns from. Each of the stories is told in the third person, but it’s one of the novel’s graceful conceits that the tale of Ivy’s youth on a Cuban island is a representation of the reminiscences that Kate hears from Ivy, whose youthful confusion has transformed over the decades into wisdom.

Each of these stories engages with a certain familiar form and then manages to twist itself out of predictability. Kate’s tale of grief, mourning, and recovery, for instance, has a structure many readers will recognize, but very early in her tale there’s a striking shift. We learn that Kate’s husband, Jeff, the man she is mourning, was an abusive, controlling, put-down artist:

At sea a mind drifts, and hers almost always goes back to the time when she wasn’t alone. Not ever. Jeff’s hand, possessive on her back, at a party. She doesn’t remember the occasion, but the words are still there. His words … replacing her own. She, disappearing, shoulders hunched, guts churning. Sick life inside of her. Hers, a half-life.

Jeff’s death, then, is a loss but also a liberation. For Kate, that’s a challenging psychological complication; for the reader it’s not unprecedented but still a refreshing change from familiar formulas of loss and healing.

There’s also a slowly building mystery in Kate’s story. Early on she returns to her cabin late one night, after visiting with Ivy:

She walks in, hangs her coat, and feels a sudden, swift surge of blood to her temples. Something is different.

            “Is someone here?” She pulls her sweater more tightly around her torso. What is it? A smell? She edges along the wall to the fish bonker that hangs from a nail in the kitchen and grips its smooth wooden base. She rarely locks the door. This is the island, for chrissake. She glances outside at the huge moon, low in the sky, melting an orange puddle out over the water. She forces deep inhalations and wills herself to relax. It’s silly, no one would make the effort to come here for the little this cabin has to offer.

The tension that builds around the question of a possible intruder connects with a series of revelations about Kate’s past, and the timing of those revelations is perfect. It’s easy for writers to fall into the trap of withholding information too long, to the point where it becomes implausible—if that information is known to certain characters—or simply manipulative—if it’s a third-person narrator who knows and doesn’t tell, because telling would mean losing suspense. Quennec’s skillful handling of this business produces a double-punch of psychological and aesthetic pleasure.

Young Ivy, still a teenager, is somewhat irresponsibly adventuring during her stay on Isla de Pinos, resisting any adult control, and rather predictably getting into trouble. Here, the twist on a coming-of-age tale is that we don’t see the dénouement of that trouble. Instead we get Ivy many decades later. The leap implies that what’s really important can be interpolated between the events on Isla de Pinos and what we learn of Ivy’s character many years later. That character is strong, but it’s apparent, without the news being in any way heavy-handed, that she’s had a life marked by loss and pain. I loved this literary audaciousness, which places a lot of confidence in the reader, confidence that Quennec certainly earns.

The form that Nora’s story takes is, again, familiar, that form in which a character has an obvious inner problem to overcome, in which she needs to learn something painful about herself. This section of the story is comic, with lots of moments where readers will surely recognize with amusement certain failings in Nora, tendencies to blindness and even narcissism, that they’ve observed in people they know and, of course, in themselves. I did find myself resisting one element in Nora’s section, in which (in contrast with the tale of Ivy’s youth), the novel seems unwittingly to participate in the character’s narrowness. She and the narrative seem jointly to regard a country of the south mainly as a vehicle for Nora’s growth, a zip-lined amusement/adventure park.

Linda Quennec. Photo courtesy Twitter

An occasional weakness in other parts of the novel is its voice. In the passages quoted, in which the narrator’s consciousness overlaps with Kate’s, the voice is concrete and effective. Kate’s pain and fear are vividly real. At other times it feels as though the narrator is striving for poetic effect at the cost of belief in the character. In a passage from early in the novel, Kate responds to a letter from Nicole, one of her connections in the past:

Kate counts the “me’s” and ‘I’s” for a total of seven. She wonders what colours Nicole’s showing up would paint on the canvas of her emotional landscape. Whatever common ground they’d previously known had shaken loose nine months ago, in the rapid severing from everything that Jeff’s death had created. Now Kate can no longer place a sense of normalcy around the things she and Nicole did together…

Like Kate, I found myself counting here, in my case the number of metaphors uncomfortably mashed together. Kate’s emotions are a landscape she is painting, she and Nicole had shared a common ground that had “shaken loose” because of a “severing,” and, finally, Kate thinks of “a sense of normalcy” as something one can “place” around something. The cumulative effect is awkward and distancing.

The issue that’s central to each of these stories is power. Kate is trying to take control of her life after first having been dominated by her mother, then her abusive husband, and, since her husband’s death, by a world that wants her to express her grief in conventional ways. Ivy resents the control of her parents, especially her narrow-minded father, and also the ways in which tired stereotypes about gender and culture are pushed on her by the world at large. Nora’s sense of herself is tied up with her power over others, in a way that’s ultimately flattening of her identity and self-destructive; her need to exert power robs her of control over the shape of her own life and self.

The novel entirely avoids preachiness on the issue, the ideas growing out of each of the women’s stories. The result is a graceful unity that emerges slowly, without disrupting the subtle psychological realism. It’s a beautifully structured work, with a resolution that’s satisfying without being pat, leaving enough mystery to feel respectful of characters and readers both.

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Paul Headrick. Photo by Jim Friesen

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 Charles Demers, Rhea TregebovHazel PlanteAnakana SchofieldDeni Ellis BéchardLinda Rogers, Kathy Page (Dear Evelyn), Kathy Page (The Two of Us), and Karen Charleson for The Ormsby Review.

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