canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Tell It Slant
by Beth Follett
Coach House books, 2001

Review by Michel Basilieres

Beth Follett is the publisher of Pedlar Press and her first novel is the kind she publishes herself: poetic, experimental, uncommercial. It belongs in a category which is now virtually a genre: the avant-garde bildungsroman of unrequited love. The type harks back all the way to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and almost all of them have been written by young poets: Nerval, Rodenbach, Apollinaire, Breton, Soupault.

More immediately rooted in Djuna Barne’s Nightwood, however, Tell It Slant is less a narrative than an evocation. By moving her English Canadian characters from Ontario and Vancouver to Montreal’s Plateau district, Follett is able to combine the new world with the old, her story’s French antecedents with its English, and add on top the sense of being away from home associated with expatriation. Montreal stands in for the Paris of the Twenties, so much so that Djuna Barnes herself can appear to offer advice to the protagonist.

The story is slim: Nora Flood, young and floundering between adolescence and adulthood, between men and women, between the mysteries of sex and herself, is subjected to the more dominating and liberated personality of her first love. Nora’s Robin refuses fidelity: “I’m like that,” she says. Nora has no choice but accept this condition, as she must accept her parent’s disappointment in her emerging independence, and the two family deaths which frame the story. Slowly over the course of the book Nora takes to heart what Robin tells her in the beginning (“Nothing is ever given to us”) and eventually does what she must to cross from youth into adulthood. In her case this mostly means accepting that people live their own lives regardless of her expectations of them, and learning to live her own.

But this is not a realist novel, and so very little is described to us. Settings are suggested instead of detailed, events are vignettes rather than episodes. Follett gets her Montreal and her Montrealers just right, but I say this because I know the neighbourhood and not because she’s spent much time convincing me.

What is convincing are the two most important things: the language, and Nora’s consciousness. This is a novel written from the inside out, where the reader sees not the physical circumstances but the character’s mind. The prose that evokes Nora for us is elegant, lean and evocative. Lucid and elusive, each short passage is a kind of prose poem, many so quietly beautiful I reread them before continuing. Happily, unlike so many previous novels of this type, Tell It Slant is neither a tragedy nor difficult going for the reader. It would have made a fine addition to Pedlar Press’s own list, and it’s no less at home at Coach House Books.

As with all Coach House titles, the entire book is on line:

Michel Basilieres has written for Faux Pas, Way Station and other journals, and radio drama for the CBC. He's just completed a novel and now lives in Toronto, where he misses the food culture of Montreal - especially the bread.







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