Lost Geography

by Charlotte Bacon

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

259 pages, 2000


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Graceful Geography

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

The art of the family saga is a challenging one, requiring a paradoxical combination of broad sweep and intimate personal detail. Award-winning New Hampshire short story writer Charlotte Bacon has captured the art in her quietly compelling first novel, Lost Geography, a book of ambitious scope which traces some 60 years in the life of a family with its roots in western Canada. Over four generations the characters branch in such diverse directions as Toronto, Paris, New York, London and Turkey.

Rural Saskatchewan provides the launching point for the tale, with the fateful meeting of young nurse Margaret Evans and Scottish laborer Davis Campbell in the summer of 1933. The restless, bookish Davis has come to Canada (fled is a more apt term) to escape the dreary inevitability of life as a fisherman. Unlike his countrymen, he loathes the sea, its coldness and peril, with its "billows of odor that made his gut slide and his eyes blur."

He works his way west from the Maritimes with no particular plan in mind, and in a stroke of what turns out to be good fortune, practically falls into Margaret Evans' arms with a bad case of the flu. Falling in love with your nurse is not a new plot device, but Bacon makes it believable with her subtlety and dry sense of humor. When Davis finally states his intentions at Christmastime, this scene unfolds:

"Well then," she said, "that's fine," and she finished her cup of tea. She passed him his gift, as if they'd just settled an account, which, in a way, Davis thought, they had.

All this propriety masks a deep physical passion that erupts on their wedding night (though first Davis must fight his way through the layers; Margaret comes out of the bathroom "wrapped in a padded dressing gown that obscured her form as effectively as a horse blanket"). This subtext of secret eroticism simmers all through the novel, lying very close to the pulse of life itself.

Margaret and Davis settle into a grueling but privately rewarding life on an unprofitable farm, producing three children, Hilda, Jem and Stuart. Life is rich with satisfactions:

Margaret felt the keenness of her good fortune. It was like glimpsing the first green flare in the wheat, the half-smile of her youngest just as he went to sleep. She did not linger on it. It was bad form to parade happiness. It might hurt those less lucky. And it might, if acknowledged, be spirited away. By whom or how, she couldn't say, but it seemed safer to keep her contentment delicately veiled.

Her caution does not ward off tragedy. One night after going out to celebrate an anniversary, the two impulsively and uncharacteristically make love in their car. After this brazen act of passion, Margaret and Davis suddenly and shockingly drown when their vehicle plunges over a bridge railing into the Waskana River.

This is the first of several violent jolts that twist the story in a new direction. Whenever one of these tragedies occurs, there is a leap forward into a different setting, with the emphasis on the next generation of characters. This technique could be jarring, but Bacon makes it work with her subtlety and delicate yet powerful sense of life.

The thread of plot in Lost Geography is matrilinear, with the story line moving forward to the orphaned eldest daughter, Hilda, who must cope with devastating grief, bankruptcy and an unknown future. Hilda seems to have inherited a tremendous grit from her mother, along with a veiled but intense sensuality. When she moves to Toronto to start a new life, the terrain is as unfamiliar as the other side of the moon. She must cope with unwanted pregnancy, unexpected love and premature widowhood all in the space of a few years. Her inherent toughness pulls her through: "There was no reason for pain," she believes. "It simply was. There was nothing for it but to move ahead."

Not surprisingly, her daughter Danielle experiences the same itch to move on after high school. When Hilda arranges a job for her at an auction house in Paris, the focus of the novel moves with her to a new, strange and sophisticated environment.

For the most part the emphasis in this novel is on plucky women surviving great challenges, new surroundings and sudden trauma, with male characters acting mainly in supporting roles. But there is a notable exception in Osman Harris, a charming but complex and tormented carpet importer who eventually marries the pregnant Danielle.

Bacon spends much time and energy probing his difficult Turkish-English background with a violent, abusive father and a downtrodden mother not allowed to speak her own tongue. Osman feels a sense of profound alienation: "He looked too much like his mother to be mistaken for a British child. He was often called a Paki and used the long legs he'd inherited from his father to dart away from fights with boys the color of suet. He used to think that if his mother just lost her accent, his father wouldn't be so angry and he wouldn't have to run so fast."

Less adaptable than the women in the story, Osman never overcomes his sense of strangeness and dislocation. Though he seems honest on the surface, he is not above allowing shipments of drugs to come in along with his Turkish carpets. His complex relationship with Danielle inevitably leads to yet another tragic loss.

There is a lot of story in this book, enough plot twists and characters for three novels, but the delicacy of Bacon's writing keeps it from feeling too rushed or crowded with events. The great grace and beauty of her style lends freshness and reality to the ever-shifting settings of her story: "Pigeons curved plumply in the sky, their watery shadows a pale stain on the square's golden buildings." "France. It seemed more like a condition than a country. Something you never quite got over." "He was full of these small flourishes, which emerged like tidy scarves from the sleeve of a sad magician." Though Lost Geography is full of traumatic loss, it reverberates with a sense of life that cannot be extinguished. The novel is a poignantly written meditation on the realities of attachment and loss, reflecting the way we are all called to love deeply, and then, paradoxically, to let love go. | September 2000

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.