canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Family Resemblances
by Anne Cameron
Harbour Publishing, 2003

Reviewed by Marcie McCauley

Beginning to read Anne Cameronís Family Resemblances is like walking into a roomful of people who are strangers to you: names and faces blur and you are convinced that they all know each other better than you will ever know any one of them. Just sit down at the kitchen table with a hot drink and listen to your host, allow the authorís voice to acquaint you with the group and quietly observe the surrouding connections and resemblances.

The first chapter of Family Resemblances introduces so many characters that you might wish for a family tree for reference, but "family" in Cameron-speak is more fluid than its dictionary definition. This isnít surprising from Anne Cameron, who dedicated her 1990 novel Escape to Beulah as follows: "For my kids, biological-adopted-foster-extended and step Ö if we had any more races weíd have to call this a track meet instead of a family." The dedication also reveals humour and heart, two qualities in abundance in this writerís work.

Readers familiar with Anne Cameronís earlier novels, like A Whole Brass Band, The Whole Fam Damily and Aftermath, will immediately feel at home. Family Resemblances is written in the same informal style, with realistic dialogue and sharp characterization infused with wry humour, passion and anger that is fuelled by injustice. And as with these earlier works, the reader is very quickly involved in the story and engrossed in the charactersí lives.

The novel opens with Cedar Campbellís memory of riding on a swing: "up and up, larger, farther, down and down, smaller, closer, up up back and up, larger, then down, forward and down, the world shrinking again." This would also be an apt description of Anne Cameronís storytelling: the perspective tightens and loosens within and between chapters so that in barely three hundred pages, Cedar moves from conception to mid-life through some scenes drawn in fine detail from her childhood and other broad-stroked sketches of her great-grandparents and neighboursí experiences.

In the prelude to her 1999 novel Aftermath, the author writes: "For me life has seemed to be a collection of spirals, each leading into another, some off-kilter, some others more or less eccentric, and still others becoming dead ends, trailing off by themselves." This philosophy is mirrored in the structure of her prose but thatís an organic process rather than a conscious choice according to the prelude to her 1991 novel Kick the Can where she explains that "stories give birth to themselves, they choose their own length, their own style, and sometimes it feels as if they write themselves".

Although clearly aware of the importance and abundance of magic and mystery in the world, Anne Cameronís Family Resemblances is firmly rooted in the everyday. At thirty-one years old, Cedarís mother Kate feels as though sheís fifty:

She wasnít even Catholic and here she was, as good as a nun, Sister Mary Dreary Ďní Grim, rising in the morning, making sure the kids had eaten and dressed themselves properly, hugging them and sending them off to the school bus, then helping Karen with the housework, sometimes managing a short nap before it was time to get ready and ride to Momís [Restaurant] and work until closing time feeding people. And then after Momís she came home to a horse that was dark except for the one light still on in the kitchen. She would make a pot of tea, sit with her feet up on a second chair and read the evening newspaper Olaf always set out for her.

There is a lot of detail in this novel about everyday routines, from waitressing to hog-farming, from mothering to truck-driving, and readers who believe the ordinary can be extraordinary will appreciate the authorís attentiveness. With careful reading of Cedarís first day at the gravel pit, you might feel as though youíve been through the training session yourself. Behind the wheel, in kitchens and gardens, visiting animal shelters and hospital rooms: the scenes in Anne Cameronís novels are vibrant and realistic.

An important element of this writerís work is the setting on the West Coast of Canada, the vitally important role played by its geography and the communities therein. Anne Cameron writes in the preface to her 1989 collection Women, Kids and Huckleberry Wine:

A town is not streets and sidewalks, buildings and roads, sewer systems and industry; a town is made by the people who live in it, people who are formed by the power of their geography, people who adapt to or alter their surroundings, are adapted or altered by them. What can ever be said of a town without focusing on the people who live in it?

From within the details of everyday life, the characters in Anne Cameronís novels grapple with fundamentally important questions in the wake of domestic violence, rape, death, accidents and apathy. They test the boundaries they find and stretch the common definitions of home, kinship and sexuality.

Often the women in Anne Cameronís novels were warned against trouble as girls, as Ceileighís grandmother warned in the authorís 1989 novel, South of an Unnamed Creek: "No matter how nice it looks, make sure thereís a way out of it, make sure you can look after your every need yourself". Young girls like Ceileigh in this early novel and Cedar in the authorís latest novel are tough and smart because circumstances demand that they be so.

"Funny how that worked out, eh?" Cedar asks near the end of the novel. Her brother studies a model skeleton in a doctorís office and speculates on the location of the soul; he expects it would be "either in or very near your heart" and readers who connect with Anne Cameronís spiral-styled storytelling might expect to find her books there too. Reading them might make you want to pour yourself another cup and keep turning the pages; it might make you sorry itís not a bottomless pot.

Marcie McCauley







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