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52 Books #8: February

March 2, 2011

I saw Lisa Moore read at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, and this week got round at last to reading her third novel February (Vintage). The novel is set largely in Newfoundland and hops about in time, centering on two major incidents. On Valentine’s Day 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sinks, killing all 84 men onboard – among them Cal, leaving his wife Helen a widow, mother to three children and pregnant with a fourth. Twenty-six years later, in 2008, Helen’s adult son John receives a call from a woman named Jane with whom he had a one-night stand: she’s pregnant and she wants to know what to do.

The narrative hops about in time, from before Cal’s death to the present day, and darts from consciousness to consciousness as it relates episodes from various characters’ lives and histories over a thirty-year period. It’s true this is a bit self-consciously literary, but what it achieves is a sort of effortless layering of complexity. These jewel-like scenes leave out a great deal for the reader to supply himself, and as they accumulate we have the sense of having had very comprehensive insights into these characters’ lives, built up from these more or less significant set-pieces. It means that the back cover’s gloss – ‘As John grapples with what it might mean to be a father, Helen realises that she must shake off her decades of mourning in order to help’ mis-sells the book quite considerably, noting the fundamental drift of the story while making it sound straightforward and leaden, which this episodic format prevents it doing. No-one, that is, to our relief, sits up suddenly and says, ‘I had better shake off my decades of mourning!’ Instead a subtler associative matrix is at work.

February is beautifully written, although over three hundred pages the effects Moore uses become first clear, then start to pall. There are, for instance, rather too many scenes like this: in an episode set in 2008, Helen is looking for a new outfit, but really thinking about Barry, the handyman helping out with her home improvements, on whom she has a guilty crush. Another customer in the shop talks to her randomly, but of course when the stranger points to the outfit and advises Helen she should try something new, we are meant to apply this philosophy to her potential relationship with Barry. Likewise, as Helen is lost in her own thoughts during a yoga class, the teacher’s instructions comment obliquely (we realise, though at least the character doesn’t acknowledge it) on troubled her state of mind. This sort of parallax view occurs again and again – and it’s neat and clever, but like any other prosaic technique, less is more, and by the latter parts of the book it has been somewhat overused.

On the other hand, Moore’s good at using repetition and reiteration to create a rolling, hypnotic effect. Here’s part of a chapter Moore read in Edinburgh last year, in which Helen is coerced by her daughters into trying online dating, and realises she has humiliated herself:

If she had been honest [in her personal statement] she would have asked: Could you be my dead husband for an afternoon. Could you put on his clothes, I still have them. Will you wear the cologne he wore. Will you smoke Export As, just for an afternoon. Will you drink Indian beer and burn steaks on the barbecue, will you be funny and tell jokes and leave groceries for the family down the street who have no groceries. Could you be Cal? Could you smile like Cal, a soft, lopsided smile, and raise a family like Cal, and be brave and courteous and charming with my women friends, and beloved by all who know you? (p.156)

The effect is that of a strange suspension or diversion of emotion — the lack of question marks in the first half helps the flatness — which seems honest and heartfelt, and is likeable and absurd too. In Edinburgh the audience laughed and winced in equal measure at this reading, sympathetic to the raw helplessness and horrified by how the uncaring world would scorn this honesty.

There’s a happy ending to February, one which only partly comes off. Helen screws up her courage, dates Barry, is married in a matter of months. Her son John — whose storyline is connected intimately to Helen’s, but feels very much like the minor strand — grows up enough to accept his responsibilities as a father. John and Jane’s (those bland names!) plotline comments obliquely on Helen’s story, much as the stranger in the clothes shop does on her outfit, but despite the unfailingly lovely prose the book somewhat fails to get inside those characters’ heads. In the end, like Helen considering the outlandish purchase, the gorgeous prose makes an unsatisfactory plot strand seem all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Nonetheless, Moore works wonders with Helen’s own story, her grief and her passing through it. Her story is funny and sad, moving, clever, and stylish. If February seems a little unsatisfactory in the end, it’s really only because I’d rather have spent more time in her company, with her voice, than with her son and new daughter-in-law.

Other reading in Week #8:

Zadie Smith Changing My Mind (Penguin)

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