Monday, 27 January 2014

Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright

I am trying to write this while a cat sleeps partly on the keyboard, so please be tolerant of unusual amounts of typoes and general nonsense. He already tried to sleep right across the keyboard, thereby inadvertently turning the music up really loud, and then looked really startled.

But this has nothing to do with Clara Callan by Richard Wright. I don't think she even has a cat. But cat or no, I very much enjoyed this book. It mixes diary entries with letters in a hybrid epistolary novel, but does it very well. I complained because Jo Walton's Among Other was in a diary format but didn't use it as well as I would have liked. This is how to do it well. There is a narrative here, related by Clara to her sister, Nora, her friend, Evelyn, or, much of it, to herself alone. And it is compelling.

Clara lives in small town Ontario in the 1930s. Her father has just died at the start of the novel, her sister has just moved to New York City to pursue a career as a radio actress, and Clara teaches at the local school, as she has done for years. Somewhat at odds by herself in her home, Clara offers surprising and acute observations on small-town life in early 20th century Ontario. The effect of gossip and its limits. The judgment of those who transgress, and the helping hands that are nonetheless extended. This is a more nuanced view of a small town, and while it certainly portrays it as a difficult place to live if you don't fit in, it also shows how eccentricity is, to some degree, tolerated and indulged.

Clara loses her faith in a deity, suffers a terrifying event, deals with the aftermath, keeps most of it to herself, and writes sometimes to her sister. She suffers from periods of depression, of elation, of confusion, of loneliness and of enjoying her solitude. Her journey will shake no worlds but is entirely engrossing.

If you're looking for a more nuanced view of small-town life than we normally get, where it is often shown as absolutely, cloying, stranglingly horrible and small-minder, or as an idyll spoiled by the city, this is the book to look at. Wright has done an amazing job of capturing on paper a difficult character, who rebuffs as much as she welcomes. And yet you love her and all her prickliness and independence, as much for these attributes than despite them.

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