The Nettle Spinner
by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Published by Goose Lane Editions
202 pages, 2005
Buy it online
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
A fairy tale of peasant romance and revenge is interwoven with a modern young woman's story of love and escape. The common thread linking the two is an improbable one: each of the women is weaving a tapestry using the challenging fiber of the nettle, a plant that punishes more often than it rewards.
By undertaking this difficult task, each woman is attempting to vanquish the tormentor in their lives. We just don't realize that this is what is happening until the end.
Here is a very clever tale that bites as much as the nettle. Kuitenbrouwer writes with such confidence and authority that discovering this is her first novel seems almost as astonishing to me as the feat of those nettle spinners, separated in time by centuries but joined by the shared evils of lust and obsession.
Alma fell in love with the idea of tree planting as a young student and soon pursued this love to Ontario's ravaged far north, where her idealism may have been as blasted as the forest, but where her resolve remained firm.
It's clear that the author is no stranger to tree planting, the seamy reality that she presents us with in this novel is portrayed so credibly. She's also no stranger to the power of the image. Not only does the nettle tapestry serve as an evolving symbol of evil and its vanquishment, but the actual setting of the novel itself is shot through with visions that evoke impressions of devastation, depression, disillusionment, despair, despoliation. (All those D words.) The mine entrance, the artificial lake, the uprooted and unsettled wildlife trying to make sense of what has been torn up and away, the gutted, rutted hillsides, they all portray the bleak landscape. It's pretty unrelenting.
Alma has left the Ontario city landscape behind for this. For four seasons she has returned to plant trees and live in squalor with a team of ragged, bug bitten misfits. There's no glory or ideals left here, where even the new trees are often sacrificed for speed and subsequently more money, thrown quickly into holes too shallow for their roots, or de-rooted before they even meet the parched, rocky soil.
What's drawn her here? And whatever draws her to return later, alone and out of tree planting season, to attempt to live in the shack where once she and her tree planting lover conjoined?
How can she exist here? What will she eat? How will she deal with her fears? If she can be violently attacked in the middle of her populated camp by a man she's known for ages and always considered harmless, how safe can she be now, by herself in this wilderness she has no escape from?
But it turns out she is not alone, and lucky for her. A gnome has already has taken up residence here and welcomes her. He more than welcomes her. He feeds her, protects her, warms her, gives up his space and ultimately helps care for the baby she never wanted when she discovers she's pregnant. Is it her attacker or her departed lover's baby? We'll never know.
The tale works on a visceral level. Approach it solely with the cold eye of reason and soon your questions will interrupt the mesmerizing pace of the story because it's not always rational. How do they live here? How could this partially blind, aged creature with his own secrets and lies ever totally provide for them? The tale weaves a spell as surely as the women weave their winding cloths. It's a spell of menace and growing dread, although at first we cannot understand why. Shouldn't the realization that they are not alone be a positive thing? Didn't her lover say he would come back?
Kuitenbrouwer is a very skilled author. Perhaps what fascinates me most is the heady brew she concocts by stirring the shoddy and menial in with the uplifting and sensual: After having sex in the nearby shack with her lover, for example, "I looked out between the boards at the sun-bleached sky, the swirl of blackflies and the heaps of fallen structures, the splintered, grey-weathered shards of previous lives, and then not, and then again, as my perspective moved with our breaths, in and out."
Trust me, you won't want to put this book down. | August 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.