Ragged Islands by Don Hannah 

Ragged Islands

by Don Hannah

Published by Knopf Canada

368 pages, 2007

Buy it online



You Can Go Home Again

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Susan Ann Roberts is 85 and dying in a Toronto hospital. By her side are her daughter, Lorraine, and her granddaughter, Meg. Occasionally her son, Carl, makes a shocked and reluctant appearance. Summoned from the west coast by his sister and burrowing into his mother's tiny apartment, he's spending more time reading her hoards of correspondence than he is in going to the hospital. His second wife and son cannot join him as the events of September 11, 2001 have just cast their pall over the world and air traffic is a mess. For the same reason, New York-based Tommy, Lorraine's other child, cannot be at her deathbed, either. Tommy and Meg are as fond of their grammy as she is of them. They share fond memories of visiting their grandmother in her beloved old farmhouse on Nova Scotia's Ragged Island. Too bad the same can't be said for her son's offspring.

Several years earlier, it was Lorraine who persuaded her mother to sell up and to come to Toronto to settle into a tiny apartment. Like so many elderly mothers before her, fictional and otherwise, she holds her daughter responsible for her unhappiness, carrying her longing to be back home to her grave.

It's this longing that propels her to make two final trips back home. In the first, she returns to the family farm where she grew up. Given away by her parents to be raised by relatives, she never really got over her feelings of abandonment. Her adopted mom was kind to her, but in her memories neither her stepsisters nor her real parents were.

In a heartbreaking scene, she is reunited with her husband, Jamie, only to be awakened in the middle of their joyous lovemaking by her daughter's voice. Nevertheless, her memories of her marriage and the marital home she aches to return to are not all good ones. Jamie's family home contains secrets, one of which Susan Ann has guiltily kept from her husband. She also has memories of lying on the floor, in pain and about to give birth but ignored by the mother-in-law, Queenie, who lived with them and who loomed so large in both their lives; and abandoned by her husband. Is the memory true? And was that accident that killed her future father-in-law really an accident? In one fell swoop Queenie escaped her dreadful marriage and gained her beloved son permanently.

In her second trip home, Susan Ann trudges on foot for days on her way to Ragged Island, accompanied by her cherished childhood dog, dead many years past, shot by a policeman for biting a neighbour. En route, she meets her biological mother, who is still a young girl, possibly pregnant, running away from an unhappy home. You've figured out by now that these journeys happen only in the dying woman's head. In between these adventures, as she comes in and out of consciousness in the hospital, she is aware of her visitors. She makes an effort to listen to their muted conversations, and she tries to understand where she is. Unafraid of her death, when she is aware of what is happening in real time, she nevertheless comes to a stark realization that her beloved husband, dead for so many years, is not going to fulfill the promises he whispered to her during her lapse into ecstatic fantasy. I miss you terribly and am counting the days, Jamie had murmured then. She hangs on to this precious and sustaining thought as she makes her second odyssey, until the moment, just before her own death…

And then she understood that it was wishful thinking, not prophecy. She'd journeyed all the way to Ragged Islands, and there was no evidence of the house where he had been born, where they had raised their family?..he would never be back here in the way she had known him. Jamie was gone now, lost to them both and nowhere to be found, not even in his coffin. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

She knew this was the truth: Jamie was no longer a human thing. What once had been flesh had now become a tiny part of the earth.

The author has either gone through the experience of losing someone close to him through a lingering illness and protracted hospital stay, or he has done his research meticulously. Susan Ann's state of being, her reaction to her children, and her lapses of memory and confusion so totally resonate that anyone who has lost someone dear to them in this way will find themselves filled once again with the same sorrow and memories. It's uncanny how Hannah can get into this woman's head and so realistically portray that half dream-like, half mystic state of a life that's fading into twilight.

The sustained mood of loneliness and longing also weaves a melancholy spell. Don't read Ragged Islands to be entertained. Read it because you want to be moved and perhaps even just a little enlightened. | March 2007

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 BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.