An Honest Woman


An Honest Woman

By Jannie Edwards

Calgary writer JoAnn McCaig’s latest novel, An Honest Woman, has a matryoshka doll structure: It layers the story of a single, middle-aged woman who is writing a novel about a single, middle-aged woman who is writing a novel about a single, middle-aged woman who has an affair with a famous British novelist. If you were confused reading that sentence, I’m not surprised. The book’s flyleaf announces that you hold in your hands “a very bookish novel.” This extends both a promise and a caveat to the reader.

As with other postmodern metafictional novels, McCaig’s stories within stories expose their making, and in doing so trouble the complex relationship between fiction and reality. There is much pleasure to be had in this kind of reading-as-decoding. However, those who resist authorial intrusions and who read with what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief” — the implicit contract readers make to suspend their critical faculties and read for enjoyment — may balk.

McCaig plays with what novelist John Fowles called the godgame — the creation by novelists of fictional worlds and characters over whom they hold the power of life and death. For example, writer-protagonist Janet Mair imagines she will have to kill someone in order to engineer a meeting between a famous British writer and her protagonist, Jay McNair, who lives in Calgary. (All protagonists have bios and names or initials close to McCaig’s, which plays with what is biographical and what is made up.) Should the famous novelist’s wife “bump herself off” — like Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre? Or would killing off his teenage daughter be more sympathetic.

McCaig’s boomer protagonists are perimenopausal, and her dramatization of the complexities of this liminal stage of life are vivid: “One final blast of estrogen” in mid-life smoulders into inflamed writing about sex — not easy to do well. Early on we are introduced to Jay McNair grappling with how to dramatize the power dynamics of a sex scene between a man grieving the suicide of his daughter and his lover. The encounter starts with violent bondage and, remarkably, ends with tenderness.

McCaig’s prose often sings: “All around her in the lineup, people are shouting into each other’s faces with a noisy social hunger which makes the word carnivorous swim into her brain.” She has fun with the friction between British classism and prairie down-to-earthiness, as when the Calgary writer tells her British lover: “Screw you, ponce,” and “No shit, Sherlock.” The interactions between mothers and sons are well written, as are encounters between a college teacher and her students. One might get lost, but there is much to enjoy here.

— Jannie Edwards


 Calgary author JoAnn McCaig maps out tale of sexuality, power and ambition with sophomore novel, An Honest Woman

Review by Eric Volmers

It would be a little too perfect if the inspiration for JoAnn McCaig’s An Honest Woman came from an erotic dream.

It didn’t. But the reality of its origins is not that far off. Fifteen years ago, the Calgary author was returning from a retreat at a writer’s colony at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Sask., when a bit of unusual inspiration struck.

“I had done my two-week colony and was working on a piece that was quite difficult, quite dark and bleak and difficult to work on,” says McCaig. “As I was driving back in August through these canola fields, everything was bright yellow and bright blue, I started just having this strange, erotic fantasy. I thought ‘This is weird. What’s up with this?’”

“A hundred miles later,” it was still there, she says.

“I thought ‘Maybe, I’ll write it down but not like writing, writing, just scribbling it down on a piece of paper,’” she says. “This weird erotic fantasy became the centrepiece of An Honest Woman.”

Eventually, McCaig would create the character who creates the character who creates the erotic fantasy. It became a springboard for other ideas in An Honest Woman.

“They are also interrogating themselves  about all sorts of things: About sexuality, about power, about ambition and imagination,” says McCaig, who will hold an author event with fellow Alberta writers Kat Cameron and Sophie Stocking on Nov. 23 at the Central Library. “The initial impetus came out in one piece. Over the intervening years, I built this story around it using two different narrators to look at the story and what it might mean.”

If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. An Honest Woman, which Thistledown Press describes as a “very bookish novel,” involves a character named JM. Her “lucid dream” finds her “engulfed in a conflagration of carnal desire and writerly ambition” and inspires her to write a novel. In that novel, she creates an English professor named Janet Mair, who escapes a rather dull life with her own carnal daydreams while also writing a novel.

“You really do need a map for this book,” McCaig says with a laugh. “And I do supply one.”

This may be one of the reasons why An Honest Woman took 15 years and multiple consultations with fellow members of McCaig’s East Village Writers Group to complete. A follow up to her 2000 debut, The Textbook of the Rose, the novel is a complex piece of metafiction that includes literary allusions and frequent flights into fantasy.

In short, it’s the sort of book that seems to perfectly fit into McCaig’s background. She is co-owner of Calgary’s Shelf Life Books and spent 20 years teaching English literature at the University of Calgary.

“Even in my normal life, I’m a horrible pain in the butt,” she says. “When my kids were watching Simpsons episodes, I’d be calling out over the kitchen counter ‘That’s a reference to Hamlet, you know.’ My hope is that my book can be enjoyed by anybody, but a person . . . who has a degree in English might catch some things that others may not.”

There are references to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There’s a dinner party scene where one of McCaig’s characters confronts a “really famous, curmudgeonly British writer.”

In another segment, Janet has an argument with a “very famous Canadian author.”

“Anybody who has been around Canadian literature a little while would recognize this very famous Canadian writer that Janet has an argument with,” McCaig says. “Janet wins the argument. That’s how you know it’s fiction, because in real life nobody ever wins an argument with this particular writer.”

But An Honest Woman isn’t just fiction, it’s metafiction. After all, there are two novels being written within the novel. McCaig says she has always been interested in examining the process. Her PhD was on Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, who was also the subject of McCaig’s critical study, Reading In: Alice Munro’s Archives.

“When I researched her, it wasn’t her stories I looked at,” she says. “It was her correspondence surrounding those stories. So I guess it’s just kind of an obsession of mine to be interested in interrogating how fiction is created.”

— Eric Volmers 

There’s still plenty of Shelf Life in books

Books matter more than ever in our over-connected world

JoAnn McCaig is Owner of Shelf Life Books and Freehand Books, former university professor, and author of a new novel, An Honest Woman — a multi-layered novel intended to interrogate the intersection of imagination, desire, and ambition.

Tell me a little bit about Shelf Life Books —  its history and what you do?

McCaig: I opened Shelf Life Books in 2010 with my business partner, Will Lawrence. We wanted to create a literary bookstore in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood that would appeal to downtown workers, residents, and to people who love good writing. After nearly a decade in business, we have become a community hub, hosting literary events, readings, discussions and panels several times a week. Our sales have risen slowly but steadily year on year since we opened our doors.

What about Freehand Books? What is that?

McCaig: Freehand Books began life in 2008 as a literary imprint of Broadview Press, an academic press headquartered in Calgary. Freehand became an independent publishing company in 2016, and in its 12 years in business has been named Alberta’s Publisher of the Year four times. We’re a small press, specializing in high-quality literary fiction and creative nonfiction. Our books have been shortlisted for and have won many awards, from Good to a Fault, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, to HOMES, a Canada Reads selection and Governor General’s Award nominee.

Is there still a place for books these days with people spending so much time on electronic devices?

McCaig: Books matter more than ever in our over-connected world. A book is a quiet place for the heart and mind to rest and find refuge, wisdom, and pleasure. And bookstores have never mattered more. For one thing, as the More Canada Report has pointed out, independent bookstores are responsible for the vast majority of sales of Canadian-authored books. If Amazon ran the world, the only book choices we’d have would be mass-market bestsellers. For another, a bookstore is a community hub, a gathering place that has real social power and value. Finally, a good bookstore hires staff that are well-read and enthusiastic, people who can guide shoppers toward the right book, whether they are shopping for themselves or someone else. We have a slogan at Shelf Life: come on in and find the book you didn’t know you were looking for!

You obviously have a passion for books. Why, and where did that come from?

McCaig: My mom read The Bobbsey Twins to my brother and me at bedtime when we were little, and ever since I can remember, I have loved books. I have a BA, MA and PhD in English Literature, and taught undergrad English at U of C for 20 years. I’ve published three books of my own, and I love having the opportunity to connect readers with good books.

What has been your biggest challenge to overcome as an entrepreneur?

McCaig: I think of myself as more of an enabler than an entrepreneur. I invested in these businesses because I believe that they are beneficial to the community. For me, it’s always been people over profits. If we do well, that’s great. But it’s more important to do good. Or to put it another way: I was at the UPS store the other day, getting some manuscripts printed, and the man behind the counter asked, “So, is high-quality book publishing a good business?” I answered, “Well it’s a great business, if you love books. If you love money, hmm, maybe not so much . . . ”

— Mario Tonneguzzi



by Ben Charles

An Honest Woman: A Novel, written by JoAnn McCaig and published by Thistledown Press, is a self-proclaimed “bookish novel” that lives up to this description with an undeniable charm. It is truly a reader and a writer’s book. The book begins with a lucid dream in which a writer mysteriously named “JM” reels at the thoughts and experiences of her romantic life. This bizarre account of life and romance also acts as a segue to introduce the character Janet Mair, who is also a writer and a mother. This portion of the novel has an interesting narrative in which fantasy and reality both play integral roles to form a complete story. Janet’s recounts of fantasy and her return to reality are signified throughout the novel by symbols that signify to the reader which part of Janet’s psyche they are currently experiencing. I must admit that when I was first introduced to this concept, I was somewhat dubious about its narrative potential. I am delighted to have been wrong and watch this narrative enigma unfold in several ways that I could have never imagined.

The story continues by intertwining characters Jay McNair and Leland Mackenzie who are, unsurprisingly, also both writers. The pair begin as writers residing in Canada who know of each other’s work and are acquainted by the literary company that they keep. This develops into a budding romance that comes with its shares of excitement, lust, messiness, and confusion. A lot of readers, myself included, tend to shudder at the thought of romance as the central plot to a novel. The mind becomes littered with images of Fabio Lanzoni clutching a Victorian-dressed woman on the cover of Harlequins that stock the shelves of our nation’s Salvation Army stores. Fortunately, the writing that McCaig delivers is leagues above that sort of drivel and the result is a romance story that is intelligent and mature while also being erotic and fantastical. The narrative of this novel is also a testament to McCaig’s writing abilities as the plot effortlessly weaves from various characters and perspectives. If you are an avid reader and a lover of unusual narratives, you simply must explore this masterfully crafted story for yourself. As a reviewer, this novel was particularly difficult to discuss without revealing significant plot points or giving away central themes of the plot. What I can state with confidence is that the ride is worth it.

While the novel can portray romance without the insipid dialogue that typically comes in multiple shades of grey, I would recommend this book to an adult audience. I appreciated the bold and audacious dialogue and exhibition of the components of human sexuality that are a little hard to explain. However, I could also see some of these components being misunderstood by a younger audience. For both the sake of subject matter and entertainment value, this book would be best enjoyed by an experienced reader.

 — Ben Charles