Beyond the Blue

by Andrea MacPherson

Published by Random House Canada

346 pages, 2007





Lyrical Echoes

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

It is Dundee, Scotland in 1918 and the War and the industrial revolution have taken an awful toll. Dundee has become a society of mostly women: making their way alone in a world that is ugly and difficult, where the best a woman can hope is that her daughter might not follow her into the factories; that she might hope for a better life. For most it is a hope that will fail.

In Beyond the Blue, her fourth book -- her second novel -- Andrea MacPherson captures the time and place beautifully:

Wallis pulls at the thick, dull jute, lets it fall into the large barrels. The rollers revolve at various speeds, fleecing the jute with metal pins before it is condensed into the fibre they call silver. Silver, as if there might be something beautiful, something breathtaking about it all. Instead, there is this: women crammed into small, close rooms; heat, dust and fumes of grease and oil; noisy machinery that makes ears ache and heads throb with the constant whir and din.

I can’t imagine that any contemporary writer has done a better job of evoking the gray hopelessness of early 20th century urban Scotland, a time so dreadful that vestiges of it all are still being cleared from many of the important centers.

The tone throughout Beyond the Blue is mostly gray and hopeless as well. As we are initiated into the lives of a family of women, MacPherson holds our hands closely:

Women hang out their windows, hoping for someone to talk to. The flats are all the same, interchangeable: greys and browns and faded reds that might once have been shocking, the scents of meat boiling, potatoes cooking; women giving up.

Told in a series of carefully crafted vignettes, Beyond the Blue introduces us to bold and beautiful Caro; fragile Imogen; watchful Wallis and Morag, Wallis and Caro’s widowed mother, who wishes most of all that she could choose men for her daughters more carefully than she chose for herself.

If there must be a single criticism of Beyond the Blue it is that MacPherson seems sometimes to push her lyrical writing so far that the strong images she creates are occasionally distracting and shoulder their way between the reader and MacPherson’s story. When, for example, we find "the pucker of skin sitting like a bruise," or we are asked to imagine women walking, "their coats like the long tail of a kite," it forces the reader to stop and examine; to stop and weigh the words against the meaning.

This is a high class complaint though, is it not? And certainly a subjective one. To suggest that the writer's words are occasionally too lyrical, too carefully wrought and the distance between the perfect metaphor and one that jolts can be slight. Certainly MacPherson has filled Beyond the Blue with many more images that work than the other kind. A man holds a woman's elbow "like she is sea-glass," and at one point, Morag "holds onto these memories as if they were lifeboats; as if she were the one drowning." Lovely.

MacPherson shepherds her careful creations through the eventful times in which they live. All the while, she pushes them through the hopelessness and, in a way -- and in each character’s own way -- finally past it. At the end of Beyond the Blue and upon reflection, one discovers that MacPherson’s lyrical metaphors have followed us home. Though we thought all along that the journey she was guiding us on was a historical one, after a while one sees that aspects of this journey aren't so very different from our own. | February 2007


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.