by Caroline Adderson
Published by Thomas Allen
321 pages, 2003
On Human Valor
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
The sophomore novel is a tough threshold for many writers, particularly after a stunning debut. Some authors get so intimidated by the task that they stop writing for years. They choke due to pressure, try to write the same novel over again or simply aren't hungry enough once they've reached their goal of seeing print.
Caroline Adderson's first novel, A History of Forgetting, was a stunner, combining such unlikely elements as the loneliness of a gay hairdresser watching his partner's mind rot from dementia and the bizarre desire of a young woman to make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. It shouldn't have worked, but grabbed viscerally due to sheer writerly skill, not to mention the kind of nerve that pushes an author to take emotional risks.
Adderson's sophomore effort, Sitting Practice , is a fine freestanding novel, even if it suffers a bit in comparison to the raw impact of the first one. It's a solidly good book, well worth reading for the consistently fine writing and the quirky humanness of its main characters.
There's something inherently likable about Ross Alexander, a Vancouver movie caterer with an outfit called Reel Food who makes effortless sexual conquests due to his cuddly charm: "He was a softie; a finger poked in anywhere on him would sink to the second knuckle." Ross is warm and affable, if a little self-involved, adept at schmoozing and feeding crowds of people.
Then after painful facial surgery he meets the woman of his dreams, a nurse named Iliana who unpacks the gauze from his nose with tender care: "It was the strangest sensation, like a long loose bowel movement, but coming from his head. He felt mentally evacuated, his mind astonishingly empty. ... Giddily, high, he opened his eyes. There was Iliana, his future, smiling down on him."
Iliana is Ross' apparent opposite, lean and brisk and athletic, yet hungry for affection, a virgin who decides almost immediately that Ross is the man to deflower her. As for Ross, he's completely besotted: "Iliana was not a pearl at all, but the whole oyster." In spite of the fact that her rigidly fundamentalist parents refuse to attend the wedding, the nuptials are a Ross extravaganza complete with whole roast lambs, multiple ex-girl friends and a live band.
Mere weeks into their idyll, the couple's life changes forever due to a wayward tennis ball. As Ross drives them home after a match, Iliana bends down to retrieve the stray ball, distracting him for a split-second so he doesn't see the truck barreling towards them. Blackout: and Iliana comes to in a hospital room, paralyzed from the waist down.
Ross steps into this sterile world filled with guilt and horror: "When the doors opened to admit him, what struck him first, after the eye-watering blast of antiseptic, was the hissing. He had stepped into the sound of a hundred inflatable objects leaking -- a steady, numbing, unmodulated sibilance."
The creepy hiss is nothing compared to the profound awkwardness the couple now feel towards each other as they try to sort out the new rules of a major disability. Iliana struggles to maintain her dignity as people pat her on the head and treat her like a child, "making decisions on her behalf as to what she could or could not do, humiliating her with offers of help when she didn't need help, or withholding assistance as though deliberately forbidding her something." She particularly loathes it when people "praise her in that singsong falsetto normally reserved for babies and dogs, just for completing some banal task."
The strain on the new marriage is extreme: "How, Ross wondered, do you have an argument with a person in a wheelchair?" And sex, once such a vibrant feature of their life together, withers away like a paralyzed limb as Ross' guilty revulsion prevents him from touching her.
The wheelchair functions as a kind of third party, a constant invasive presence, but this dynamic isn't exactly new. Even before the wedding Iliana knew Ross was almost abnormally close to his twin sister Bonnie, an emotional basketcase trying to raise a small son on her own. Though jealousy would be forgivable, it's to Iliana's credit that she gets past it with grace. For one thing, Bonnie is "the only person who treated her exactly the same way now as before the accident."
The impact of the truck has smashed more than Iliana's body. The old order of life is not so much disrupted as shattered, necessitating dramatic change. In spite of Ross' fear that he is abandoning his clingy sister, the couple move to Vancouver Island to run a small cafe called Real Food. When Bonnie comes to visit them a couple of years later, much seems to have healed on the surface; Iliana has adapted admirably to her disability and finds real pleasure in baking homemade bread, and a new, pared-down Ross has gone vegetarian and embraced Buddhism.
But there are undercurrents, unresolved dilemmas and unmet needs that come boiling to the surface when Ross asks Bonnie to move in with them. It would be giving away too much to say how Iliana copes with her loneliness, except to say that her sexuality is a force that cannot be quenched even by paralysis. After all, "never would she be suspected of an affair because no one suspected her desire. The chair had neutered her."
Sitting Practice isn't as dark as it sounds. The Adderson quirkiness adds a fresh and lifelike touch to bits of dialogue like this one:
"When you see a naked baby," he asked Iliana, "do you immediately think of different ways to cook it?"
She provides some of the best descriptions of Vancouver weather ever: "The sky stayed furred, a coated tongue;" elsewhere she describes "an unrelenting gamelan of rain." But what is best about this novel is the core of tenderness at the heart of Ross and Iliana's marriage that somehow keeps them afloat even after major catastrophe. There's a certain valor in the way they carry on and keep on reaching for one another, however awkwardly. Such is the human condition, flawed yet admirable, and faithfully reflected by Adderson's finely-tuned, perceptive prose. | November 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.