canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Dragons Cry

by Tessa McWatt
The Riverbank Press, 2001

Reviewed by K.I. Press

Tessa McWatt’s second novel, Dragons Cry, was nominated for the 2001 Governor General’s Award. McWatt, particularly adept at evoking character and setting, has created a memorable and moving novel largely about family. Her characters wrestle with the shadows of their parents and siblings while trying to create families of their own.

Set mainly in Toronto and in Barbados, the novel tells the story of Simon, a Queen’s Park geologist raised in Guyana and Barbados, and his wife Faye, a musician struggling with her art and with her body. The two are forced to confront head-on their fears, desires, mistakes and histories when Simon’s brother David—who introduced the couple and who in part sparked their separation—commits suicide.

Dragons Cry is about family and family relationships, but it’s more precisely about playing second fiddle. I use the cliché because it’s all-but-used in the book: a recurring element is the story of Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’s sister who, while also a prodigy, quit music in order to marry. Faye studies Nannerl’s life, focusing on her historical invisibility beside her eminently famous brother, wondering what Nannerl thought of the whole business, what others thought of Nannerl, and how much or little control she had over her own path. The Nannerl story draws attention to how Simon and Faye are also struggling with the second-fiddle role in their family contexts. Faye grew up without much attention from her parents, and lived for years under the shadow of her professor, maestro and first husband, Michael. Simon long played second fiddle to David, the older, stronger, more daring and forceful brother.

Simon is ostensibly the protagonist—it’s his childhood, his coming-of-age, his brother’s suicide we follow for most of the book--but he’s understated, hard to grasp:. He’s compelling largely for poetic reasons, for his love of salt and search for pelicans.

It’s remarkable how well-developed David is when, as a character who isn’t even living in the book’s present-tense, he could have been written, in other hands, perhaps, as a cipher or a shadow. The reader does get to know David; he’s not merely a ghost in the background of the others’ lives. David’s complexities are key: to both Simon and Faye, he represents a strength whose tragic death is confusing and harrowing, as if the source of their own strength had been cut off. What becomes of the second fiddle when the first falters?

Faye struggles with both her music and her body throughout novel, never really sure she can and should keep playing, constantly struggling to have a child. Perhaps it’s a girl thing, but her difficulties seem the most real to me. Maybe it’s a girl thing on McWatt’s end, too: she seems to get further into Faye’s mind than Simon’s.

Some characters are underdeveloped, however. David’s wife Justine, for instance, exists mainly as physical description. She’s a character who spent many close years with David, and I would have loved to have learned more about her. Faye’s parents have a hint of the cliché about them, particularly her horse-racing-addicted Irish father. That being said, many other minor characters, particularly Simon’s family and friends in Barbados, have been given much detailed attention.

My remaining complaints are minor, some merely nitpicky. A couple of McWatt’s verbal strategies aren’t entirely successful. We often read, in italics, a kind of fragmented interior monologue coming directly from Faye’s mind; this distracts me, and I don’t think serves any real purpose in the midst of a narrative which, while told in the third person, comes in these instances from Faye’s point of view. (This happens with Simon as well, but is more marked with Faye.) And while McWatt’s use of startling metaphors can be delightful, sometimes those metaphors tread a dangerous line between the brilliantly original and the ludicrous. My jury is still out on "cashmere sweaters spout[ing] like hairy mushrooms on the chests of the young women." I also can’t quite get over the title, which refers to both Simon and his father having been born in the Year of the Dragon. While it does speak to some central ideas in the book, it sounds deceptively like the title of a fantasy novel.

The book’s climax, literarily if not narritively, comes with the question--Faye’s question--is love as strong as death? McWatt doesn’ t hit us over the head with any easy answer. While the book ends on a note of forgiveness and renewal, it’s not an easy step for Simon and Faye. I don’t know for sure if their love is strong enough to overcome David’s shadow; but at the end of Dragons Cry you certainly hope that it could be.

K.I. Press is The Danforth Review’s reviews editor. Her first book of poems, Pale Red Footprints, was recently published by Pedlar Press.







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ISSN 1494-6114. 


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