canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Mary Walters
NeWest Publishers, 1999

Review by Jason Millar

Perhaps the ever-encroaching list of reruns appearing in the daily television listings is a sign that ours is a time of nostalgia. Rather, our top-heavy population might be labouring under the misconception that endless repetition is the best way to combat Alzheimer's-a theory that may subsequently drive the rest of us soft in the brain. Whatever the disease, one of the undeniable symptoms of cultural stagnation is the release of books, in trade paperback format (as if to fool us all), like Mary Walters' Bitters.

In it, Maggie Townsend, the wife of a small-town Alberta politician, and employee at a local arts and crafts store, is unexpectedly reunited with an old friend-ex-hippie and intellectual, Zeke Avery-who sweeps her off her feet during a short rendezvous at a local coffee shop. But Maggie's husband, Archie, is embroiled in a political scandal that threatens to end his career, so she finds herself torn between a new love and loyalty to her husband. Throughout the book, Maggie searches for guidance and comfort from her ostensibly enigmatic, dead grandmother, while nursing an annoying habit of slugging bitters as a short-term cure-all for her problems.

Eccentric? Not quite. Characters are only somewhat developed by the last page, confusing most of their motivations throughout the book, while the style Walters uses to describe places, people, and events is under-developed and somewhat cliché. Take the opening paragraph-the first impression a novel makes on its reader-where it is "a chilly night in the middle of March", and Maggie's husband has drawn "a heavy turnout" for his political speech.

The language is poorly crafted, and draws the reader into the setting on a very superficial level. Clichés abound, especially surrounding the "intense" ex-hippie drifter and accomplished writer, Zeke Avery. A short list: he lives in a rented cabin outside of town, writes books so deep that only he understands them, and goes "off the edge" on a drinking binge when his novel in progress gets "too big". That he keeps "a dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" on his stove (possibly for quick reference) is troubling, though admittedly on a personal level. It is the absence of creativity that marks this book, more than the content itself.

Waiting for a moment of thoughtful insight or simply an original phrase, to no end but the last page, is a frustrating process for any reader to undergo. Reading is, however, a form of entertainment, a fact that provides Bitters a place of refuge from too severe a criticism. It is not akin to the myriad of Harlequin romances on the bookshelves of tobacco-store newsstands (though the character of Zeke makes you suspect that Mary Walters researched a few before diving into this book), but fails to convince the reader like more carefully crafted works deserving of the tag 'literature'. Consider it ultra low-fat fiction-a television sit-com's papery cousin.

Jason Millar lived in Toronto when he wrote this review.







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