by Margaret Hollingsworth
Published by Blue Lake Books
360 pages, 2004
Buy it online
Cleaning Your Plate
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
It takes courage to write a novel, especially the first. It takes even more courage to blend fiction with fact, real characters with imaginary ones and narrative with history, and to get that mix exactly right.
Hollingsworth's recipe goes like this: take one of Canada's best known artists -- Emily Carr -- add a painter who once enjoyed prominence in England during the 1930s before sliding into obscurity -- Frances Hodgkins -- and fold in several fictional characters -- a modern day artist and university teacher from Canada, Catherine, her burnt out daughter, Kit, who is more addicted to failure than to drugs, her father who never was and his mentally unstable, self-mutilating child bride, Ilona.
If anyone can handle this volatile concoction, it could well be Hollingsworth. Well known as a playwright, she has long been an advocate of Canadian drama. An early member of the Canadian Playwrights Guild, she has forged many a battle for the inclusion of women playwrights in regional theaters, more equal gender representation in national and international conferences and more female voices in the media. With a Masters degree from the University of British Columbia as well as many award winning plays to her credit, Hollingsworth was on the Writing Faculty at the University of Victoria for a decade before recently retiring and returning to Vancouver, the city where she cut her dramatic teeth.
The last few years must have been busy for her. The amount of research she would have needed to do to craft this work is prodigious. Emily Carr has also had a few busy years. Doris Shadbolt's publication in 2002 of Carr's sketchbooks seemed to have ushered in a resurgence of interest in and publishing of books both by and about one of Canada's national treasures. Be warned, however, that once you read Be Quiet, you may never think the same way again about the woman. Hollingsworth has made liberal use of dramatic license to paint a woman who is really quite repulsive.
The hefty novel moves in place and time, from Canada, to America, to France and to England. Weaving the present with the past is a diary written by an imaginary character, Ilona's great great aunt. The fictitious diary writer carefully records the meetings between Emily Carr and Frances Hodgkins. (They did, in fact, meet in France, although little is known about their relationship.) The diary obsesses Ilona and in turn possesses both Kit and Catherine.
Where the novel works best is in this blending of the women in the past with the present, the imaginary with the real. They are individual, creative women trying to survive, relegating a large part of their lives to the shadows in order to keep up momentum. One chooses domesticity, channeling her creativity into a diary while she substitutes security for self image. The others turn their backs on the traditional roles but seem to pay a huge price for pursuing their dreams. Kit, in fact, seems only too eager to move in the traditional direction when she is faced with a mewling new step brother and a widowed father who has left her holding the blanket, so to speak.
Carr's unorthodox treatment for what was then called hysteria in a Suffolk TB sanitarium is far less interesting than the relationship between Carr and Hodgkins and the conclusion the reader must come to at the end of this weighty novel. Hodgkins supported herself through her painting and teaching all of her life, but in the end history has forgotten her. Carr was far less successful in being self reliant on all levels, but who is ultimately remembered? It all comes down to that old familiar dilemma of artists: the choice between making a living and future glory.
It's not surprising that in a book of this length and complexity there are areas that feel incomplete. For me, it's in the credibility of Catherine's two suitors. One of them, the obsessed landlord, is downright frightening, and the prospect of Kit returning with her stolen baby to her old "family home" in his house is horrifying. The book doesn't end; it offers a series of conflicts, problems and scenarios and then leaves the reader open mouthed with probable disaster around the corner and no resolutions in sight. Some readers won't like that.
In fact, much of the book is implausible, but clearly it was never about plausibility. Some may argue that the themes of aging, women and creativity are done to death, some will label it a "woman's book," but any cook knows that it's not the ingredients alone that make up a dish; it's also the way they are mixed, cooked and presented.
This is an enjoyably complex, ambitious work by a confident and mature creator. It needs time to be savored at leisure. If you don't like the odd ingredient, just leave it on the plate. | July 2004
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.