Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: Lost Geography by Charlotte Bacon

Lost Geography by Charlotte Bacon
Review by Uma Anyar

How much does place affect what we are as individuals? To what extent does geography help to mold a person’s character? How does changing where you live alter who you are?
Charlotte Bacon explores these concepts in Lost Geography, her debut novel set in rural Saskatchewan, Toronto, Paris, London, Istanbul and New York. Scotland is the kickoff location for this multi generational saga that spans over sixty years in the history of a family who’s names are not well known but whose lives are compelling because the writer makes us care about each and every member. The main characters are women but the husbands, Davis and Osmon, linger on in memory. Bacon writes about family love and life sensitively and unsentimentally.
The story starts with Margaret Evans a young nurse, and Davis Campbell a bookish fisherman who hates the stink of the sea.
Davis leaves Scotland to seek his fortune in Canada and to find a place inland away from, “The salty wool of wet sweaters, the blood on the gills. Billows of odors that made his gut slide and his eyes blur. It was everywhere. In pubs, his clothes, the hair of whey colored children.”
Davis made his way to Regina, a farming region of Saskatchewan, where the flu and a 104-degree fever placed him in the capable hands of pretty Nurse Evans. They discover a bond through their love of books. Davis’ convalescence becomes a form of courtship as Margaret reads him sonnets and Bleak House, just as his mother had done when he was a child. They marry and discover a sexual passion neither had expected or understood but it survives three children and hard times on the family farm. It is a simple but very poignant story of love and family life rooted in hard soil, animals, cold winters and broad flat landscape that takes more than it gives.
Ironically, it is the sexual desire that pulls Margaret and Davis away from their twentieth anniversary celebratory dinner at a restaurant and into their sturdy truck for privacy, in an effort to find a secluded spot to park and make love. This is an uncharacteristic and boldly daring act for this practical couple. Tragically and simply, the truck skids on bridge and plunges into the Wasakana River where they drown. This calamity is the first in a line of sad and painful losses that moves the family tale onward to a new piece of geography and onto a new family character and how she adapts and changes in her new location. The story moves in a matrilineal arc each section of the book devoted to a daughter and the city she lives in.
Toronto becomes home for Hilda, the strong and needy female in the Campbell clan. Interestingly it is the girl rather than either of the brothers who moves on, alone, to make her fortune or at least try to survive on her own terms in a large cosmopolitan city in the 1950’s. Bacon presents us with a strong female character that raises her daughter while working for a travel agency. Hilda finds love after a precipitous one-night stand that leaves her pregnant. She marries a good man who dies unexpectedly of a heart attack. Hilda’s daughter Danielle loves her mother but also yearns to get away from her.
Danielle moves to Paris because of a job at an antiques auction house. Danielle has the grit, beauty and sensuality of her mother and grandmother. Eventually, she marries Osmon, an English-Turkish rug dealer and this is where the book becomes more intricate and complex. Bacon takes us into Osmon’s London childhood where we encounter a patriarchal brute of a father, a mother whose Turkish accent betrays her English life style and focuses on the problems of not fitting in.
I found the London/Paris section of the book most absorbing. Bacon’s elegant, sensitive writing is especially persuasive describing the horrible brutality that sometimes is part of family life. She explores the convoluted ways parents try to fit into their new country and the ways their children are affected.
Despite the title of the book, geography plays a secondary role to the personal and devastating loss and grief that death forces on a family. Proving that the powerful places on earth are in the human heart.
The book closes in New York City where Sophie and Sasha, the teenage children of Danielle and Osmon Harris break through their father’s all consuming grief of the loss of Danielle to cancer and prevent his suicide. The descriptions of Osmon’s depression and isolation, his efforts to live for his children are among the more powerful and convincing I have ever read. It is impossible to not care about the human struggle to go on when there seems to be no reason to.
Sometimes the wrong thing to do is actually the right thing. Sophie throws her father’s precious Persian rugs out the window of the New York store. “The Carpets didn’t fly. They didn’t catch the wind, they didn’t soar… They fell with a purpose, the way a hawk falls on prey.”
Through Sasha and Sophie’s bizarre act of love for their father Osmon, we come to understand that it is emotional geography, which spreads itself out like a magic carpet beneath our feet that helps us endure life’s tragedies.

No comments: