canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Canterbury Beach
by Anne Simpson
Penguin/Viking, 2001

Review by Shane Neilson

If plot is analogous to a novel's engine, Canterbury Beach is powered by a conventional 351 block, reliable and guaranteed for a standard number of miles. If characterization is a novel's auto body, that 351 is set within a beautiful exterior design. The first chapter features a family preparing to drive to a summer vacation cottage; establishing the basic story, familiar enough to a contemporary reader: after many years growing up and apart, this troubled nuclear unit will rediscover itself. The remainder of the novel consists of this pilgrimage (echoing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) by motor vehicle to a summer cottage at Canterbury Beach, providing an opportunity for the family to gain self-knowledge. 

But who are they? In the preliminary twenty-six pages we meet almost all of the characters, afforded two pages of prose each. It is a grand skill to create a convincing cast at the outset, a reader doesn't need to wait for the usual build of story to provide an understanding of the people that dance about in the author's head. The only major character not introduced formally in the first chapter is the alcoholic brother Garnett, though he is alluded to darkly. Garnett is, as the Garnetts of similar tales are wont to be, an X-factor and black sheep catalyst for reevaluation and strengthening of the ties that bind. Almost all the characters have wanted another person other than their current lovers, each carry their own particular guilt, no one knows where they are in their lives or for what reason they got to their personal version of nowhere. 

To extend my metaphor to language: if it is akin to a car's fuel, then Simpson writes in an uncomplicated, regular unleaded way. Her sentences don't roar off the page, there is no self-conscious too-pretty fragility of overtly poetic prose. Instead there are short, serviceable lines unadorned with bells and whistles, nothing to call attention to itself. A typical paragraph: 

The sky was dull and smooth, with nothing to show distance or depth. Her feet were numb with cold as she got out of the car because the heater wasn't working well. She knocked several times, until the porch light went on and Liz opened the door, gesturing impatiently for Verna to step inside so she could shut out the chill air. It was almost as though Liz expected her. 
Some choppy, terse paragraphs need smoothing out, like the following: 
What had her father said to her about love? Something about the way it changed. But her parents had split up, so what did her father know, when it came right down to it? Her mother went off, taking Robin, leaving her father behind. He stood at the window, hand raised. Love. What did anyone know? The repetitive nature of it. Over the next hill and the next and the next. Sometimes it gave out. Like that car stuck on blocks in the grass over there. Remnants. Parts. 
Simple sentences and sentence fragments are fine, but too many in succession create needlessly disjointed prose. 

Simpson's structure is Ondaatje-esque, replete with flashback and fracture narrative. A few linked paragraphs tell a small story, then perspective shifts to a different character with another small vignette. Call this the chassis, versatile and game for varied terrain, mixing things up and keeping us interested. Loves lost are revisited, new ones wished for are dissected in their emptiness, leaving flawed marriages still taking breath, for better and worse. 

It's a claustrophobic book. The men tend to be emotional mutes, the women seem hell bent on feeling something, anything, and no one understands each other. The characters are confined to each other's orbits- the number of minor characters barely reaches double digits, and these are sometimes introduced to us as little more than names. Kyle, the other man, and Carollee, the other woman. A buddy drinking at a party. Things are so utterly conventional one wishes for something extraordinary to happen, and nothing ever does. Take the case of Robin, trapped in a decade-long loveless marriage with philandering Neil and desperately wanting children. They haven't had sex for over six months. But guess what? Robin has a one night stand, and realizes that she doesn't love her husband anymore. 

But it's a strong first novel- individual chapters have been published as self-contained stories in the best Canadian journals. One (Dreaming Snow) co-won the 1996 Journey prize, awarded to the best short story published in Canada. Also, an earlier draft of Canterbury Beach was a finalist for the Robertson Davies/ Chapters prize for the best first unpublished novel in Canada. Established pedigree aside, elements are here that promise more, specifically a knack for rendering female character complexity and an ability to knit together single stories into a larger cohesive whole. The missing ingredient is a distinctive style, a longer line that reclines in grammatical possibility, syntactical flamboyance making a show of colour. 

The central theme of Canterbury Beach is that of the difficulty and essential worth of the bonds of marriage and family. This message is conveyed by enduring Alistair and Verna's example contrasted with the relationships of their progeny. Itís a simple theme, simply illustrated, but it's one that needs some energy, less predictability, more life than a creaky, traditional yarn about Nova Scotian patriarch Alistair, matriarch Verna, their troubled clan falling apart and built back together again in the weakest and final act. Set at a beach house, tears are spread all around, not a dry eye to be found, only a blurry and golden glow. Yet the sadness is genuine, and Canterbury Beach does hint at the magic of relationships that are as limited as they are limitless. Imagine an adulthood summer vacation with your family several hundred miles away- first you have to get there. And Anne Simpson gets you there.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.






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