Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Turtle Valley

Now, I did a fair bit of my growing up in Turtle Valley. I swam in Skimikin and Phillips Lakes, hiked Squilax Mountain, picked agates in the creeks, worked on neighbours' farms at haying time, that sort of thing. And as a literature instructor, I should be OK with how fiction bends elements of place in support of story -- but the fictionalizing of place in Gail Anderson-Dargatz's novel Turtle Valley was so distracting to me that I had an extremely difficult time getting into this novel.

Anderson-Dargatz has a reputation for being attentive to place. As a Globe and Mail reviewer remarked (in a comment picked up on Amazon), "She is hopelessly in love with and attentive to her subject, the physical world and all its gifts." (I think this is an appositional structure, meaning that "her subject" is in fact "the physical world and all its gifts," but I suppose it could be a list of three things she's attentive to....)

But this isn't the Turtle Valley I grew up in, in terms of its orientation or population or even some of its vegetation. Maybe what she calls golden tansy, for example, is something I knew as something else, or maybe it's moved in since I last spent much time there (15 years ago, admittedly), but it's new to my sense of the place. The odd thing is that she doesn't seem to think her handling of this place is inaccurate. Her Book Club Guide to the novel remarks, for example, that "British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson landscape and ecosystem are integral to this novel." Her novel might be true to the spirit of the place, I guess, but not to the letter of it, and that distinction matters.

But I'm a complainer, as my students well know, so I'll try to ignore that reaction for now.

Once I set aside my squabbles with how Anderson-Dargatz handles this particular place, and did my best to relax into the star-crossed tale of the love between Jude and Kat, this novel tells a pretty good story, and one I'm disposed to go along with. Their past affair ended badly, as it had to, and it doesn't resume, because it just can't, but there's both delicacy and power in the way it's rendered. I'm not much for romance generally, but this flawed relationship had me interested. There are plenty of other characters, some of which I appreciated more than others, but Kat is at the book's centre, and Jude is at the core of her view and experience of the world.

Not everyone loved this book when it came out, with Alexander Varty in the Georgia Straight likely the harshest in objecting that "Anderson-Dargatz's creeping plot gets bogged down in so much exposition that, halfway through, you're thoroughly tired of Kat and Jude and Ezra and the whole damned crew, no matter what dark surprises spill out of Grandma's carpetbag." Varty's often a cranky reviewer, and I don't always agree with him, but there's a germ of truth to most of his comments. This novel brings together a number of stories as a way of letting us into Kat's mind, but in the end they're stories rather than true access points; we don't get into her head and heart, but I think that's part of what Anderson-Dargatz is doing, saying that Kat doesn't have full access to her own thoughts and feelings either. There's an awful lot of plot in this book, but the two lead female characters are obsessive writers -- there couldn't be a thin plot, because it wouldn't be true to the way they experience the world.

And maybe that, in the end, is why the book doesn't work for me. As keen as I am to know more about Kat and Jude's future (together? apart? happy? not?), Turtle Valley exists in Kat's mind, not in the world. Turtle Valley is one of my home places -- primal landscapes, I think Don Gayton calls them -- and Turtle Valley gets it wrong.

I'll read A Cure for Death by Lightning before long, I imagine, and I'll read Anderson-Dargatz's next novel as well -- apparently to be titled Spawning Grounds -- but I'm probably going to grumble about it....

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