canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999



Tent of Blue

by Rachael Preston
Goose Lane Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Lori Hahnel

"I never saw a man who looked / With such a wistful eye / Upon that little tent of blue / Which prisoners call the sky," wrote Oscar Wilde in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol". Tent of Blue is Hamilton creative writing teacher and award-winning writer Rachael Prestonís first novel. It is a well-crafted and convincing story of misery, and of escape.

This is the tale of Yvonne Hoyfield and her son Anton Kavanov, told in alternating chapters. Yvonneís story begins in her teen years in England in the 1930s. She is the daughter of alcoholic music hall performer Nell Rose, and a virtual slave to her abusive mother. While taking care of bookings and costumes and generally covering up for her mother as much as possible, she dreams of having her own career as a dancer. Antonís story takes place in the novelís present, Vancouver of the Ď50s, where his mother eventually opens a dance school. The club-footed son of Yvonne and her lover, Russian ballet dancer Alexei Kavanov, Anton dreams of flying. The alternating chapter format works well here, giving a mosaic effect with the two linear but intertwined stories illuminating and being a part of each other, yet separate. That Yvonneís chapters are told in past tense and Antonís are told in present tense helps to make this distinction.

All of the major characters here are victims, of abuse, of poverty, of circumstance; they all lead lives of quiet desperation. And all of them escape their misery one way or another, mainly through death. Yvonne and Anton are different because they are able to focus on that tent of blue and eventually gain their freedom. Both of them are also shrewd enough to know when is the time for action and when is the time for inaction. In this scene with the alcoholic impresario who eventually becomes her husband and main abuser, Yvonne knows it is safest for her to do nothing:

And then Harold kissed her. It was a long, hard, passionate kiss. At least on his part. Yvonne held herself rigid. She felt one hand around the back of her head. Where was the other? Still holding onto the pipe? The kiss lasted an eternity. Yvonneís head filled with a prayer: Please God, donít let him come in. Please God, donít let Alexei see me like this. Finally, frustrated by her inertia, Harold pulled away.

This passage seems to last an eternity, too, short sentences made up of mostly short words dragging us slowly through this scene, making us look whether we want to or not.

I read much of Tent of Blue in the waiting room of a medical clinic. The pacing and the vivid, interesting characters kept me from looking at my watch even once. And Prestonís convincing rendering of the English music hall, of wartime London and of 1950s Vancouver makes her scenes come alive. I forgot all about SARS and my earache and was really disappointed when I reached the last page; I wanted it go on. To me, this is the hallmark of a good book. I hope weíll see more novels from Rachael Preston.

Lori Hahnel is a Calgary writer whose fiction has been nominated for The Journey Prize and has appeared in The Amethyst Review, Forum and lichen literary journal. She is currently marketing her first novel.

 

 

 

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ISSN 1494-6114. 

 

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