The Holding

by Merilyn Simonds

Published by McClelland & Stewart

312 pages, 2004

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The Dark Side of the Garden of Eden

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


It's easy to forget that Alyson Thomson is very young. Not yet 30, she and her partner, Walker, have suffered through several miscarriages and reeled on together in their attempt to coax a living from the land: he as a reclusive potter and she as a herb gardener. Both of them are on the run, putting the distance of time and place between themselves and their histories; both of them brittle with secret pasts.

Living in an abandoned holding they purchased with Alyson's inheritance from her father, a depressive who committed suicide shortly after Alyson left, their relationship seems as fragile as the current baby that is making a bid for life in Alyson's womb. In fact, it is very hard to believe that this unwholesome union has held for 10 years.

Like her herbs that flower and release their fragrances under her careful tending, my interest in Merilyn Simonds novel, The Holding, grew and was nourished by the unfolding of the strange relationship between the couple, and their mysterious pasts, only revealed at the conclusion in a disappointing deus ex machina ending.

But that is only one half of the story. On another level, the life of an Irish woman who came to Canada with her brothers and parents when she was a young teenager also shares the pages of this novel. Her name is Margaret, and the property where Alyson and Walker work and live once was her own. Alyson uncovers a log cabin on her property and discovers an old book containing the writings of this pagan pioneer who settled here over a century earlier and learned the magic of plants and herbs from an earlier Earth spirit, immortalizing their uses in a recipe book.

The lives of the two women parallel each other: each loves the soil and the gifts of the forest, each is independent, hardy and strong and each is betrayed by mates who feel no obligation to the land.

It's not an easy thing to lure the reader into each woman's life. In the hands of another writer, I might have found myself skipping the Margaret chapters in order to carry on the story of the modern lovers. However, Margaret's tale is almost as interesting and once the links between the two are forged, there is no danger of skipping chapters. The author also does a fine job of recreating the idiom of the old language.

That's not to say that paragraphs aren't skipped, however. Four years in the making, this first novel blossoms as vividly as the marigolds Simonds' heroine tends at the book's end. I read avidly for much of the novel, recognizing the deft creation of a wordsmith not unfamiliar with the spell of words. (Among the author's previously published works are The Lion in the Room Next Door and The Convict Lover.) Then, however, I found myself ensnared in the tangles of the garden and impatient with Alyson's circular thoughts, and took shortcuts on my way out.

Expectedly, Alyson loses her baby shortly after its birth.

When you grieve the loss of a loved one, there seems to be a strict, albeit unspoken of amount of time that you are allowed to sorrow. If you go beyond this time limit, friends and family lose patience. I lost patience. And then the pat revelations of both Walker and Alyson's pasts in the last chapter seemed too manipulated. The heroine I had come to know was also not the kind of woman who would cling to a cancerous relationship or ignore the terrible truth once she uncovered it. She has not unfolded as that emotionally dependent or needy. Once she accepts her own truth and discovers Walker's terrifying secret, it is not credible to me that she could ignore them or continue believing there might still be a future with Walker. Why isn't she afraid for her life?

Is Simonds trying for dramatic irony when she has Alyson simply decide she will stay in the woods a little longer and then go back to Walker and see what he has to tell her? Are we to believe she could really be that ignorant? With the evidence of what she has uncovered in plain sight, he'll know what else she has found and we know that he isn't going to tell her anything. He is, however, going to act.

But don't let my skepticism and impatience blight this, for the most part, engrossing book. There's a lot of magic here. | February 2005


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.