The Handless Maiden


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Change One Thing.

The sanctioned family memory, even the police report, states that the gun went off by accident. I know better.

Perhaps the rest of the family looks at that first gunshot as the pivotal point of our lives. I don't. When I examine this 1960s photograph, the smiling eight-year-old has a hint of panic in her eye already; it isn't a game anymore.

My father and I used to play a game. He'd take a photograph or a picture from a magazine. "What do you see?"
"A quiet forest. Trees. Sky. Animals playing happily," I'd say.

"Change one thing."

"Rain. Animals take shelter. Lightening strikes. Fire breaks out. Animals run for their lives. Forest destroyed."

For every action, a reaction. Alter one element and an idyllic forest scene becomes a cataclysm. "What happened to the dinosaurs?" One thing changed; cause and effect took over from there.

-- From The Handless Maiden




I met Loranne Brown early in her career as a novelist: weeks after The Handless Maiden came out in the first half of 1998. I say it this way because I've read the book and there's no doubt in my mind that an important career is erupting: right here in front of our eyes.

I'm not alone in this belief. Others have read the book as well. Reviewers use nothing but glowing terms. They mention her in the same breath as Canadian literary greats: Atwood, Laurence, Findley. Bookish people all seem to feel like they've made an important find. It's heady stuff. Stuff that the 43-year-old newly-minted novelist has no trouble at all not letting go to her head.

"It's daunting territory to be up there mentioned in the same breath as them, but I'm just as excited as heck." That heck seems like a typical Brownism: it's adamant but peaceful. She means it, but not enough to risk offending with a curse. That is how, at any rate, the author seems. Her work summons an entirely different persona.

The Handless Maiden is breathtaking and -- should you read it -- however you imagine the author, you'll be wrong. Brown laughs a lot. A cheery though slightly self-deprecating laugh, as though she still can't believe all of this is happening to her. She is not mousy in appearance, but neither is she New York or Toronto literary glam. In fact, on meeting her, you might more easily imagine Brown at the helm of a PTA meeting than as the author of a potentially controversial and literarily important book.

Brown looks, in fact, like a mom. Like your sister-in-law. Like your old chum from school, the one with the ready ear and the right words. In short, she hardly looks like the sort of person you'd imagine writing about child abuse and amputations and the death of children, and writing it with passion and pathos and power.

The Handless Maiden deals with all of these things. It focuses around Mariah who is physically abused by her grandfather until -- as a teenager -- she tries to shoot him and ends up shooting herself in the hand, ending a promising talent as a pianist. The accident (change one thing) alters her life in incalculable ways: changing her perceptions and directions and even her sense of self.

Written in the first person, Brown's prose is convincing enough that she says that most people think it's autobiographical. Checking, even, to make sure she has both hands. Some, she says, look at her very closely as though seeing if her hand is a prosthetic. It's not. Though many details of Mariah's life coincide with Brown's own, The Handless Maiden is a work of fiction, though even some of those closest to her sometimes have a difficult time determining where the fact ends and the fiction begins.

"My father phoned when he started reading the book and said, 'Okay, you're telling me this is fiction but I really have to know because the old man is dead and I can't kill him.' And he phoned me again last week to tell me he'd started reading the book again as a novel not as a potential or possible confessional from his daughter. And he said, 'It's a completely different book!' And I said, 'Yeah dad: it's a novel.' So he was able to make that leap, which was nice."

The cause of the confusion isn't hard to find. Both Mariah and Brown are around the same age: Brown was born in 1955. Both are from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Both got engaged right after college and married weeks after that. Both moved to Bermuda with their new husbands.

"Describe the view you know," Brown laughs. "When I was writing the book I had no idea it would ever be published. I thought, 'If I'm going to write a book, I'm going to amuse myself and write the kind of book that I've always wanted to read.' And I took stuff along for fun and amusement and courage and talismans that you bring with you, like the photograph on the hotel room wall to make it seem more like home."

As well as writing the view she knew, Brown set herself certain rules regarding her character Mariah's view of the world. "If something doesn't effect her emotionally it doesn't get mentioned. That's what the challenge of the thing was. Even description. Because she's so inwardly focused, unless it has a point to the development of the character I couldn't put in any description. And that was really hard because I had to think of some reason for her to notice something. So it had to be character exposition as well as explanatory. It was a challenge, but fun."
The result is an exceptionally stylish and tightly crafted book. One that her publishers sold as literary fiction, but that could find its way to the mainstream if guided. "Literary fiction is what they're calling it," when asked to place the story in a genre. "But it's got that romantic element, it's got the musical element, it's got a bit of medical drama. If it makes it to mainstream-slash-literary fiction I'll be happy with that!"

Brown worked as a journalist and legal secretary in Bermuda, then doing legal secretarial work when she and husband Lorne moved back to Canada in late 1989. It was the secretarial work that, in some ways, gave birth to The Handless Maiden or at least contributed to her arrival. "The other work I was doing was really boring and had a lot of repetition and you were looking at all this stuff. And material started to come in to keep me amused and so I wouldn't lose my mind completely. Somebody said, 'How do you do this day in and day out,' and I said 'I have other mental resources that I rely on.' I guess because I was so bored with this the emotional material came. And because I was looking for drama in relief from this boredom. It started to take shape then."

Brown loved Bermuda, but says she would never have written a novel if the family had stayed there. "There was a Bermudan author who I met in our stay there who lives in the States yet writes solely about Bermuda. Can not live in the place and write at the same time. There's just something about the place; it's so laid back that you just lose all ambition to do anything. He lives in the States and writes about Bermuda from a safe distance. No hardship. You need a little bit of hardship when you write."

Brown's hardship isn't traditional: not the starving artist's garret of old. Brown lives with her accountant husband Lorne -- the same one she married and moved to Bermuda with all those years ago -- and two children in the suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia they moved to in the early 1990s. Her hardships, then, involve dealing with rain and raising two active children -- son Ian is 15 and daughter Hillary is seven -- while balancing a career as an emerging writer of note. Thus far, Brown seems to be enjoying the struggle.

Readers who enjoyed The Handless Maiden will be glad to know that Mariah's story hasn't ended: not really. "I'm working on a story from Sully's point of view. It starts four or five years after this one ends, so it's a whole new drama. He's approaching middle age and there's a whole lot of stuff going on there."

As excited as Brown was with Sully's story, the publisher was more interested in a different one. "I've started another from Mariah's brother Luke's point of view, just a couple of weeks after The Handless Maiden ends. Because Luke has inherited his father. The dad was supposed to die in the original, but they thought that was one thing too many that happened. They said, 'How do you feel about letting dad live?' So Luke has got his dad with him and he's got a whole life that Mariah doesn't mention much either."

Brown is excited about the prospect of looking at her character's stories from different perspectives. "Everyone has different memories. Even people living in the same families. Like Luke will have different memories of his grandfather than Mariah does. So it's very interesting."
Brown admits that The Handless Maiden is -- in some ways -- a very dark book. "But it's not as dark as the subject matter might dictate. There is a lot of light humor and family-oriented stuff that takes it away from the darkness and because she's expanding towards the light I hope you get to see some of that as the reader but, of course, shit happens: so it's dark." | September 18, 1998


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.


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