Raising Orion

The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, May 9, 2011

RAISING ORION, by Lesley Choyce, opens by introducing Eric, a middle-aged history professor who is recovering in an Ottawa hospital after a near-death experience in the Arctic, essentially a failed suicide attempt. Eric possesses no direction, no purpose, no meaning in life. Then we meet Molly, owner of a quirky used bookstore in Halifax. She grew up on Devil’s Island, daughter of the lighthouse keeper. As a child on the remote isolated island, Molly read incessantly and invented unique ways to entertain herself, such as star gazing and restoring life to dead rabbits. As an adult, she and her book shop welcome a host of eccentric characters such as the alternative rock musicians in a band called Dumpster Teeth.

Todd, the 14-year-old nephew of Molly’s friend Grace, is in a children’s hospital dying of cancer. Molly befriends Todd, and the two form a unique if somewhat bizarre bond. Naturally lonely – even Todd’s parents rarely visit him — Todd falls in love with Molly. One night, Todd has a dream. He sees Molly from a distance, calls her name, and she acknowledges by looking at him. The next morning, Molly is discovered naked and lying with Todd in his hospital bed. She has no idea how she got there. She’s arrested and sent to a psychiatric clinic. If the reader is able to suspend a sense of reality, it makes for an interesting storyline.

The book flip-flops back and forth between Eric and Molly’s individual stories, and the reader wonders how the author will eventually mesh these two seemingly incongruent narratives. Eric dreams about an Arctic explorer and does some historical research, as he is wont to do. Based upon his findings, Eric impulsively moves to Halifax. He finds his way to Molly’s book shop, in search of Canadian exploration history books, and there the two stories converge.

I initially struggled to become engaged in this book. But like any optimistic reader, I stuck with it and by chapter nine or so, I found myself intrigued by the story. Choyce does an admirable job with character development and setting. The writing itself is inconsistent, peppered with too many sentence fragments, clichés, passive tense, and more telling than showing. I nearly stopped reading the book after this particular passage; “Sometimes they adjusted the tubes running into Eric or the tubes running out of him. Sometimes a sharp thing went into his arm.” I don’t know, maybe it’s my medical background. And this paragraph; “Halifax had belatedly and sadly become a modern city. And that meant everyone was in a hurry and confused. People were always in a hurry and that made them confused. Or they got confused first and then hurried on to do the next thing on their list and, of course, then there wasn’t enough time. And that was confusing too.” I had to read that part several times because I was confused!

Yet other sentences and paragraphs were so beautifully written they stopped me in a good way and compelled me to read them over and over. For example, “Then he settled into a fog as thick as any that stole up into the harbor and curled like a smoky cat around the city of Halifax.” In describing the psychologist, “ . . . his hands were like lively birds in front of him. Stormy petrels at sea or sandpipers zigzagging low over the water near shore.” Describing Molly; “That’s what literature had done to her. Stories. In purposeful fiction, everything meant something. Not like the random chaos of real life.” And I loved this line; “You know how some people have writing in their soul – it’s just there, and the language spills out.” Molly recalled when she was a child, her father saying, “An island is a refuge for things.” Foreshadowing? Absolutely. Choyce creates metaphors through ice, song, windows. He draws on Inuit folklore and Zen philosophy to color the story and draw characters together in metaphysical ways. I found the ending of the book to be somewhat abrupt and I literally tried to turn the next non-existent page.

Quill & Quire, January/February 2011

An enigmatic woman named Molly is the subject of prolific Nova Scotia writer Lesley Choyce’s newest novel. Raising Orion describes Molly's childhood as the daughter of the last lighthouse keeper on an isolated island off Canada's East Coast, as well as her present-day life as an autodidact and second-hand bookseller in Halifax.

Choyce's writing is lush and evocative, particularly when focused on Molly's childhood. (One scene, in which Molly and her parents find bodies near their island after a plane crash, is particularly vivid and disturbing.) The story is replete with Canadian locations and historic events, but the writing has an otherworldly quality that resembles a fairy tale.

This could be an asset, but the author squanders the potential of his chosen narrative mode. More attention is paid to the setting and backstory than to advancing the plot. Choyce is clearly enamoured with his protagonist, but as a result he has a hard time backing away from her long enough to flesh out other characters, such as the academic Eric Walker and a young cancer patient named Todd.

Molly's backstory occupies a larger section of the book than the contemporary plot strand, which fails to carry any force. There is little forward momentum, and the climax, during which Molly is caught in an inappropriate act with the young cancer patient, causes only a blip in the lives of the characters, rather than the earthshaking consequences it should provoke.

Choyce has written more than 70 books for adults, teens, and children, and there is no doubt he has ability and talent. But the complete range of his skills isn't in evidence here. -— Alexis Kienlen, a writer and reviewer in Edmonton