canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


Enemy Women 

by Paulette Jiles
HarperFlamingoCanada, 2001.

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Genre fiction is a compromise between literature and pulp, a middle ground where plot coexists with metaphor. Of all the genres, however, the historical romance is the most susceptible to violaceous flourishes unsalvageable by any literary device. Against this subgenre handicap, Paulette Jiles pens her first novel, setting it against the teeming backdrop of the American Civil War. Enemy Women tells the circa 1860ís story of Adair Colley, displaced southern maiden, and Major X. Neumann, Union Army officer while benefiting and suffering from the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen subgenre.

The combination of the love story and period piece fails in a way that Henry Miller, Raymond Chandler, and Annie Proulx cannot. Pairing Once Upon A Time with I Love You, Too often has a deleterious effect upon modern writing Ė such hybrids are an evolutionary dead end. One cannot improve upon Aesop, who wrote once upon a long time ago, too and in some form was always telling a love story.

Readers like the conventions of period detail, diction, and custom; they also like the concept of love because it is an uplifting one. Yet they demand verisimilitude, and thus not only must the historical component be authentic, the romantic component must be as well. An author performs research work with relative ease; he should pull texts from library shelves and soak up the technological and social aspects of a desired decade of human existence with aplomb. The hard part comes in supplying the romance, tricky in any age. Who knows what motivates human beings to find one another? And who can really articulate that? The authorís prerogative is to supply the base elements of human alchemy and attempt to demonstrate love. The danger here is that the reaction never happens, and the reader is left with people who ape a heightened state, who profess and sacrifice and risk for no convincing reason, who vibrate with a capital-obvious LOVE masquerading as affectatious sentiment.

Sentiment sustained at a novelís length stretches credulity and elicits embarrassment from an audience, who may enjoy the history, want the book to succeed, and want the characters to love one another. But when the protagonists are MADLY, MADLY in LOVE, the problem is not attributable to the authorís diligent attention to history or in aesthetic style. The problem lies in verisimilitude, and though the reader believes that the history is proceeding as it could have, they donít believe in the love. And when the reader doesnít believe from the very beginning, thereís an even bigger problem, as is the case with Enemy Women. Prison inmate Adair meets the Major as a woman whose house was burnt, whose father was beaten, apprehended, and likely killed, and who was forcibly separated from her much younger sisters. During her initial interrogation she is familiar and impudent with the Major, a far more educated man who could, at a whim, arrange for her death. For his part, he responds in a similarly credulity-straining manner, engaging in an indulgent banter far removed from what would have been a menacing conversation. This initial confrontation is supposed to lay the groundwork for their future romance; what it does is enforce a strict sense of unreality.

Jiles makes strong use of the historical record; each of her chapters begins with at least one diarized account of the war by an actual participant. Always relevant to plot unraveled in the succeeding chapter, these excerpts make the book more immediate. Often written by combatants or their womenfolk, the book itself gains a guerilla feel as consequence: sergeants misspell their accounts of small skirmishes, matrons describe rapacious looting by militiamen, inmates write desolate letters home reprinted in county Historical Society bulletins a century and a half later.

In weaker contrast, Adair and the majorís Ďromanceí succumbs to stereotypical convention, eventually assuming Harlequinian proportions. Consider the cast premise: a beautiful Southern maiden, a tall handsome officer in uniform, the clandestine wink-wink "interrogations" in his office. Readers are forced to suffer passages like, "This is fraternizing with the prisoners, he said into her ear. I could be court-martialled for thisÖIt was worth anything to hold her like this, anything, his career and even his freedom." None of the referenced excerpts from real manuscripts adopt this treacly flavour. In fact, the best parts of the book are the reprints. Jiles might repay her debt to the record by compiling an excerpted history of the Civil War as it unfolded in the state of Missouri. Such a collection would make for fascinating reading, lacking the mawkishness of her romanticizations.

The book also suffers staid colloquialisms, a classic failing of the historical romance. Enemy Women shamelessly cribs dialogue from Dukes of Hazzard-esque scripts. Tracts of narrative are too country-cute, with simulated southern maíamís and yíalls. Furthermore, the narration is often purple; for example, a new recruit fronting a snowy plain is described as having a "Ögrave and considering look on his face. He was a tall young male manned by great, silent driving forces that worked in him like noiseless machinery." But most troubling are the great swaths of plot folded into mere paragraphs; when Adair is summarily convicted of collaboration with the Confederate cause by a Union Officer, it takes little more than half a page for her to instruct her younger sisters to (a) seek shelter, to (b) be summarily sentenced, and to (c) be sent to a Womenís Prison. One sympathizes with Adair on the prison train when the narrator describes her as being "Ösilent with amazement. Things had evaporated so quickly she hardly had time to study on it."

On the one hand, the historical romance has too large a scope, touching on too many people in too little time. On the other, the scope is too claustrophobic, spending too much time on the saliva exchanged between two people. All of the history is sped through in order to allow for two people to unhurriedly meet and fall in love; then they separate, and a flurry of major events happen until the story slows down again because the protagonists near one anotherís location. It is as if historical romances progress according to one unalterable rule: all have velocities inversely proportional to the proximity of the loving couple. When person A is far from person B, the plot streaks; when the reverse is true, we decelerate to the slow speed of a waltz.

Poets are uneven by nature; perhaps a tenth of their assembled poems have merit. As a celebrated poet writing her first novel, a reader expects Jiles to stall in places, but there is also the redemption of resonant writing, the successful hybrid of prose crossed with poetry. Jiles may rely upon descriptive clichés like "He was furious. He bit his teeth together and pressed his fingertips on the paper. His fingertips were white." But when she switches from an authorial voice to the formal written construction of a characterís prepared statement, as in a letter, she ups the language ante, displaying greater confidence. For example, Adairís correspondence with the Major is pure characterization, the delivery of more truth and natural speech cadences than can be found in awkward dialogue and thin narrative syntax. Jilesís characters are best when they write one another, proving her background as a poet: poems are best crystallized and revised. Fiction, however, is an imprecise enterprise, 300 pages plus adding up to an indeterminate-quality story in parts.

The tale of Adair Colley, her family, and Major Neumann is inspired by Jilesí lineage, and so best told with a happy ending. Though the writing may falter, the plot may skip ever forward, and the love may be thick, the effort behind the sentiment partially wins you over. Person A and person B inexorably approach as lovers and survivors. They live happily ever after, an ending consistent with a fableís conclusion. Enemy Women, laden with sentiment and packed with plot, is a conflicting read. The well-appropriated history offsets Valentine-like cliché. Characters write one another so that the prose becomes compelling; they embrace one another just to make sure.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.

 

 

 

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