canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

A Forest Burning
by Carole Giangrande
Cormorant Books, 2000

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

"How we redeem ourselves. I need to find that out." So says Lorne Winter, the sixty-two-year-old American-born photographer, documentary-film maker, and romancer. He’s also the man who, in the opening line of Carole Giangrande’s new novel, flings himself out of a helicopter and into a forest fire. The pilot, Sally Groves, is left to puzzle out her friend and former lover’s suicide. She knows that, somehow, fire forms part of the answer: in 1965 Lorne filmed the napalm-soaked woods aflame in Vietnam, a year later he was near when Sally’s ancestral home and woods in Long Island Sound were destroyed by fire, and the 1995 fire in northern Ontario lured Lorne to his death.

Fire: a destroyer, also an agent of rebirth. Forest: a place of silence; when aflame, a place of crackling roars. These paradoxical and potent elements become the symbols which gird the lives of Giangrande’s characters in A Forest Burning, characters doomed to rediscover their past many years after that past burned itself to the ground. As Lorne once observes in a conversation with Sally: "You were never one for casual talk." So might a reader say of Carole Giangrande’s novel, but as Kafka reminds us: "We need books that are like axepicks, able to break the frozen seas within us."

The novel, then, flashbacks and flashforwards. It starts with the 1995 Conlin fire and alternates between scenes in the fifties and sixties, on Groves Island – named after Sally’s nineteenth-century ancestor – and in Toronto. The point-of-view also switches between Sally and Lorne and her son Gabe Winters, raised since birth by Lorne and his former wife. The narrative’s shifting of setting and point-of-view mirrors the workings of memory and consciousness in the characters’s lives.

Significantly, these two forces often exact pain. Sally, escaping the media hype which surrounds Lorne’s suicide, returns to Groves Island for the first time in four years. She considers telling Lorne’s sister about the first-ever letter she, Sally, has received from her son. After reading it, she "felt like flotsam cast on the beach in a gale of remembering and sorrow."

A letter can smash a life of calm, just as fire breaks the silence of Sally’s northern cabin-life by bringing Lorne back into her life. His suicide causes her to lose what she treasured: the bulwark against past pain. For in her boreal forest, "she felt woven into its solitude, into its simple, almost monastic cloth of work and rest and silence: a skein of years in which she was no more than a strand." Piloting tourists to a sportsman’s lodge and occasionally flying journalists over forest fires, she had a life shorn of aching memory until Lorne arrives, eight months before his final visit. She notices that he’s "carrying more unhappiness than he could bear." When he holds her in her cabin, "she wanted his tongue inside her, wanted silence." Sex and silence: balms one can enjoy simultaneously. For Sally, a woman in her late-forties, sex is a temporary stay against loneliness.

Giangrande’s novel brims with characters to whom pain clings like lichen. There’s Sally’s mother, Katherine Duval, and father Glen: he, a decorated World War Two pilot who survived the crash that killed his crew; she, a French-Canadian who leaves her Gatineau home to marry a man who then goes to war for four years. She moves into the old Groves home and becomes a celebrated painter of glass, detailing oddments of glass and porcelain with Arcadian scenes from her Ottawa Valley childhood. This is her act of witness. And it is the act of witnessing that links the novel’s main characters, holding out the possibility of atonement for past failures. Witnessing is key; the right witnessing.

When she is just eighteen, Sally is warned by Lorne to "beware of false witness." And twenty-eight-year-old Gabe, shocked into a search for the truth of his parents by watching his adopted father constantly fall into a CNN-filmed forest fire, begins to think of his ancestry as "all that remembered light." He seems to see a glow of history and myth and rumour, a glow he knows he must carefully examine if he is to make sense of his own life. Aptly, his girlfriend’s name is Dawn.

Giangrande’s novel, is her first; Missing Persons is her short-fiction collection, and has been acclaimed by M.T. Kelly and Jane Urquhart. A Forest Burning is an ambitious novel. In chronicling three generations of war-inflicted loss, in crisscrossing the U.S.-Canadian border during the years of war and protest, Giangrande takes on serious themes and handles them with confidence. And her language is carefully wrought, often epigrammatic. As her friend Jake Nolan remarks to Sally after her return to the family property: "An answer to a question. That’s what home is." Giangrande’s characters suffer questions about their past as they tumult through their present, and yet it is memory-compelled questions that make Sally and Jake and Gabe seek redemption in life, just as Lorne Winter sought it in death.

Harold Hoefle teaches high school English in Montreal. He has published fiction and book reviews.







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