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|Yes, and Back Again|
canadian literature, 227, 2016Sandy Marie Bonny (Author)
Alexis von Konigslow (Author)
Charlotte R. Mendel (Author)
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane
If there is a single theme that reverberates through all three of these recent novels, it is that human relationships, personalities, places, political and social issues are far from straightforward or static. On the contrary, they are, like the map of family sketched by the young narrator of Alexis Von Konigslow’s The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, “sticky like spiderwebs” or “disintegrated like images in a kaleidoscope.” Both characters and readers seek clarity and order in the unravelling of stories that cross locations and generations, historical events and diverse people. However, it is that web of ambiguity, and the disentangling and reconstitution of secrets—“the things that are hidden”—that impel these absorbing books. Math becomes an instrument both of solution, and of infinite complexity.
In Nova Scotia writer Charlotte Mendel’s a hero, the captivating gender-fluid child, Mazin, enjoys reviewing his cousin’s photographic archive, and prefers his studies in mathematics over other subjects; in his view, every problem should have a solution. In attempting to arrive at a definition of heroism during the turmoil of the Arab Spring, he makes a list of the qualities he associates with a hero; however, as the narrative weaves through the perspectives of family members, and their responses to the protests, increasingly more individuals can be defined as heroic. This is Mendel’s second novel, rooted in her experiences living in the Middle East, and focusing on the Al-Fakoury family: Mohammed, the authoritative and apparently conservative self-declared head of the family, his wife Fatima, sister and brother-in-law Rana and Hamid, and brother-in-law Ahmed, who chooses to take an active position in the protests. In this remarkably sensitive and intricate book, even the children of the family are carefully developed. The novel motivates its reader to question biases and easy answers, building sympathy for each perspective as the stories of family members unfold and connect.
Mendel thus challenges dogmatism—religious and political—throughout the book. In a recent interview with Lindsay Jones, she noted that a woman struggling to feed her family and maintain a home for her children can be as heroic as a protestor with a placard: “that person is giving over their entire soul for the protection and safety of other people . . . what could be more heroic than that?” Indeed, if the novel has a weakness, it is the ongoing analysis of heroism that seems too explicit in places, especially as secrets involving family members are unveiled. The strongest element is its probing of the web of power within the home, just as significant as the revolution outside its doors.
Sandy Bonny, a Saskatoon-based writer, takes on a personal and intimate glimpse of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in her first novel, Yes, and Back Again. Like Mendel, the connective tissue for Bonny is the house and family—this time in Saskatoon—which becomes a site for both historical and contemporary narratives that are inevitably linked. Alternating between two time periods and families—separating by several generations—this novel engages with multiple fictional genres, including murder mystery and ghost story, so that the reader is drawn to question whether this house is haunted, if only metaphorically, by the family of Cecelia (Celia) Mazer, whose grandfather built it. We learn that Celia’s own mother came from the Red River Metis community, and at some point in Celia’s early childhood simply disappeared. Other female members of the family died of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, as they live in relative poverty and isolation. In the contemporary narrative, Neil Cameron and his partner Tanis take possession of the house, and Neil—who teaches mathematics at a local high school—gets caught up in the mysterious disappearance of two female students in his class. Tanis, meanwhile, hunts through the house and attic finding icons of the past which both fascinate and confuse her; she also develops a relationship with the little girl who plays in the alley between her home and the neighbouring apartment block.
Like Mendel’s book, Bonny’s both incorporates—in the latter, replicated textual artefacts—official narratives, and questions what they hide. Historical papers, news releases, social media comments, only increase the intrigue surrounding the home, the missing girls, the missing mother in the past, and the gaps in documentation. Similarly, Alexis Von Konigslow’s novel links two plotlines centred on 1933 and 2003; the thread of connection is the festival of Passover, and a lodge outside of Kingston, Ontario, that served as a refuge for persecuted Jews. The narrator of the 2003 line, Emily, is a graduate student in mathematics developing her thesis as a study of family connectivity. She visits the lodge to learn more about these connections, but finds more mysteries through missing letters and an initially implausible association with Harpo Marx, the narrator of the 1933 line. What begins as a fairly simple family tree, like Mazin’s list of heroic characteristics, becomes increasingly intricate as she works and reworks the web. The 1933 story focuses on the Marx brothers’ repeated visits to the lodge during a period of social activity and community among North American Jews. Harpo becomes meditative and introspective, often leaving his more extraverted brothers to go down to the dock, where he meets Ayala and her daughter Blima, whom the reader recognizes as Emily’s grandmother in the 2003 narrative. Like Bonny’s novel, this story slips between fantastic, supernatural, and factual/historical connections. The tangible artefact of missing letters becomes the seed of Harpo’s new idea for a movie, but it also holds a mystery that complicates even as it unravels through Eastern Europe before the Second World War.
The retelling of the Passover story becomes another link, reminding the reader—as the characters—that “God gave us selective memory . . . the ability to remember things any way we want…And with that comes the capacity for infinite happiness.” While the reader may not initially feel a fascination or link with Harpo Marx—and other reviewers have noted their ignorance or even disinterest upon picking up the book—the dexterity of Von Konigslow’s storytelling produces a narrative that will not easily be forgotten. In fact, the way all three novels underscore, whet, and feed our fascination with family history, relationship, place, and secrecy—drawing on both the characters’ and the reader’s curiosity, as collaborators in the construction of meaning—marks an extraordinary power in the works of these Canadian writers. Math, the subject of solution, dissolution, and reconstitution, becomes a feature intertwining all three books in surprising ways.
the goose, vol. 15 Issue 1, august 30, 2016
Yes, and Back Again tells the story of a young couple who move into an old home in west Saskatchewan that is filled with as much history as it is asbestos. While Tanis renovates her and her husband's new home, she uncovers clues that reveal the lives of the house's past owners. Utilizing her genealogy training, historian Tanis pursues the story of her predecessors while Neil is launched into a mystery of his own. As a high-school teacher and student advocate, Neil becomes entangled in the shocking disappearance of two of his female students. Both girls are of Métis descent and their disappearance is an all too familiar occurrence in this Saskatchewan town.
Through her narrative, Bonny attempts to bring to light the shady underbelly of Canada's historical and current racist treatment of its First Peoples. The disappearance of the two Métis girls is representative of the hundreds of Aboriginal women who have gone missing within Canada's borders. The storyline of the two missing girls is an important literary opportunity to expose the injustices done to Aboriginal women in Canada and can be read in a multitude of ways. In one reading, Bonny falls short on elucidating the countless horrors faced by Aboriginal women. Bonny could have used this opportunity to impress upon the Canadian reader the violent reality of hundreds of Aboriginal Canadians, but instead chooses to showcase the “victims” as willing participants in their disappearance, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone who is aware of Canada's murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls.
The other reading takes into consideration that Bonny created a happy ending for the two girls in order to juxtapose the tragedies that hundreds of women face, reminding readers of those tragedies. Bonny may have also been tapping into the reader's anticipation for violence against the young girls in order to highlight how quickly violence becomes the norm, troubling our concept of reality. Kudos should be given to Bonny for trying to raise awareness to this national tragedy through her literary portrayal, even if her attempt did not fully hit the mark.
Bonny demonstrates her talent as a writer through her use of analepsis and creation of relatable characters. The narrator brilliantly shifts between Neil and Tanis's experiences in their new home and those of its previous owners. Bonny peppers the past storyline with clues that allow the reader to participate in the current mystery being solved by Tanis, which in turn creates a deeper engagement with Tanis as a character. Similarly, Neil's characterization is strengthened by his entanglement in the case of the missing girls. Neil's eager-to-help nature lands him in trouble with the police when the line between an appropriate relationship between student and teacher is crossed during the investigation. The reader sympathizes with Neil's duty to his students, and Bonny skillfully creates situations for Neil in which the reader shares in his emotional turmoil between right and wrong. Bonny creates a glimpse into the inner workings of characters by including instances of communication between characters through social media and cell phones. Not only do these interactions serve to flesh out characters, but the presence of communicative technology and their digital records play an integral part in the search for the missing girls.
The expert crafting of Bonny's novel in terms of its narratological structure is unfortunately overshadowed by countless grammatical errors that one would not expect to find in a professionally published novel, especially one financially assisted by the Canadian Council for the Arts. The onus of these errors is likely not on the author, but fall on the publishing house who did not perform diligent copy editing techniques. These errors are distractions that jar the reader out of Bonny's intriguing storyline, hindering what would be a fully intriguing and enjoyable reading experience.
— Catriona Duncan, The Goose
Saskatoon StarPhoenix, January 2, 2016
On top of that little bit of ambition, Tanis wants to get her genealogy search business back up and running, and, just to be neighbourly, wants to try and become friends with the single mother in the apartment next door so she can become both friend and babysitter to the woman's young daughter. She and Neil, we're told in cryptic language, are also trying for a baby. This is the part in the plot where something's supposed to get dumped into the couple's lap, and it does.
First, while exploring an attic room she didn't know they had, Tanis finds both a mysterious stain on the floor that she immediately believes is blood and a pair of work boots from a previous era underneath a couple of the floor boards. Has there been a murder committed here? Then, two girls from one of Neil's classes go missing — one a First Nations girl — and the school goes from nervous unconcern to full concern to high alert with the police there asking questions.
Bonny has tapped right into the zeitgeist here: first and foremost with murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls, and, to a much lesser extent, with young couples doing awesome renos on old houses. Trouble is, Bonny squanders some of her surefire plot capital by taking us through a convoluted hunt for the original owners of those boots, details about various friends and well-wishers helping with the move and the reno, and thoroughly extraneous material including, for example, what a couple of strangers are talking about as they enter a Tim Hortons.
In a series of italicized chapters that appear regularly through the novel, Bonny sets up what screenwriters call a backstory for the house and, coyly, the boots. There's a whole group of people here, some small-time criminals, some children, who both built and lived in the house over the years, long before Neil and Tanis showed up. Bonny links past and present by having Tanis find a woman online who used to live in the house. So now, amid what is trying very hard to be a harrowing story of two missing girls and the possible involvement of various students and maybe even a teacher, we have our attention repeatedly diverted to the house, the boots, a woman who lived there, all working hard to add suspense' and a gritty reality to' each other.
Have deaths occurred in the streets of Saskatoon, both past and present? Of course they have. Have deaths, both natural and possibly linked to crime, occurred in this house in the past? Maybe. Has something horrible happened to these two girls? That's what the police, school authorities, parents and teachers are all trying to find out.
But Tanis, for all her ambition to be many things to many people, quickly becomes overwhelmed with what she finds. In the first half of the novel she discovers “too many missing girls and women — dating all the way back to the first homesteads.” Then, at about the story's halfway point, Tanis looks objectively at her house for a moment and, “swallowing her pride,” sees it for what it is: “Nothing about her and Neil's home ownership encouraged trust.” She's not going to become a beacon of light for the neighbourhood. Finally, as the story approaches its vague conclusion, Tanis promises the woman whose family owned the boots in the attic that she'll keep looking into the history of the people who once lived in her house, “though, at the moment she'd run out of steam — it wasn't fun, the nervous compulsion she felt toward the dead in their home.” Fun. All these dead people aren't fun anymore.
Bonny has tackled a big subject here. In the immense shadow cast by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and the promises of a new federal government, what does the average citizen do for First Nations people and a common humanity? For Neil and for Tanis, particularly, murdered and missing indigenous women are no easy fixer upper, no yearlong project encouraged by friends over beer and pizza. Tanis wants to do it all, and rather rapidly finds her energy and will drain into various corners.
Bonny's novel has some of the same problem. Trying to be too many things in too many directions, it loses focus just when it has a real concern directly in its sights. Yes, and Back Again is story of murdered and missing women trapped inside a home reno story that can't empty its various containers quickly enough to get on with the real. project.
— Bill Robertson
SPG Reviews, december 13, 2015
I didn’t know Yes, and Back Again was going to be that kind of book. I picked it up in the evening, intending to read only the first ten pages or so, then planned to devote the following day to it. Well, I finally put it down on page 110, and only because it was hours past my bedtime. This novel swept me up like the roaring South Saskatchewan River snatches debris off banks in the springtime.
Saskatoon writer, artist, and educator, Sandy Marie Bonny, has crafted an ambitious story that melds history and the present, addresses cultures (specifically the Métis), and makes friends of wildly disparate people. There’s also a strong Tim Horton’s presence, text messaging, online police bulletins, and Facebook: talk about keeping it real.
Bonny unrolls two parallel stories: one concerns a young high school math and Life Skills teacher, Neil, and his writer esearcher wife, Tanis. They’re tired but excited. They’ve just purchased an old home on Saskatoon’s west side (Avenue L), and their daily life includes making the former rental house livable (ie: removing the wheelchair ramp, “odour-busting” the basement with a product called “Piss-off Pet Stain Remover,” using a borrowed Shop-Vac to suck up mouse droppings), and meeting the neighbours in the apartment building next door.
The other story centers on the Métis family who built and first lived in the character house. This story, presented in italics between the present-day chapters, includes a dangerous river crossing in a single-axel cart; premature deaths (TB, scarlet fever, Spanish flu); trapping; and a mysterious, blood-like stain in the attic.
The contemporary story heats up when two students – friends Melissa Arthur and Jody Bear – go missing from the high school (which might be modelled upon Bedford Road Collegiate, if I’ve guessed the geography correctly). Both are Neil’s students, and he takes some major and unconventional risks in helping to locate them. Were they abducted? Are they runaways? Is it all a hoax? While Neil’s busy being both suspected by and working with police, Tanis dives head-long into a research project and a relationship with a descendant from the home’s original family.
This could all become quite convoluted, but Bonny’s got it under control. She keeps the plot moving forward, the pacing tight, and it doesn’t hurt at all that she has both a keen ear for teenaged diction and understands the dynamics of married life. Plus, she includes several west side “landmarks” that ground this story, ie: the Farmers’ Market, the skate park by the river, the highway Esso. This compelling novel works so well because it pits mundane every-day-ness against a very real and topical danger (“Six in ten years is a lot of murdered women [mostly First Nations] for a city their size”).
Deep into the book there’s an interesting husbandwife discussion concerning teenaged boys and where the line’s drawn between respect for objectification of women. Although not specifically billed as YA, this well-written novel would make a smart addition to high school reading lists.