Fall on Your Knees

Fall on Your Knees - Ann-Marie MacDonald In remote Cape Breton, James marries child-bride Materia, who gives birth to Kathleen (whom she does not love), and Frances (whom she does, but who turns out "bad") and Mercedes, who relies on her religion to help her keep herself and her family together, but eventually becomes an unreasonable tyrant. James goes off to war to avoid his incestuous feelings towards Kathleen; he sends her to New York for the same reason; there she falls in love with Rose - but who is the father, then, of the child Lily whose birth kills her upon her return?

Talk about inadequate summaries. And the plot *is* important in this novel - or the unpeeling of its onion layers is, anyway - but that's the least of its pleasures. Macdonald has a dramatist's ear for resonances between scenes; she has a wonderful sense of the symbolic significance of objects, especially, it seems, clothes and documents. And she leaves you with unforgettable pictures -- Kathleen in the classroom with a garbage can on her head, forced to sing. Lily striding unevenly along hard roads in her bright red boots, packed with money from Frances. The moment when James first realizes he's attracted to his pubescent daughter, as she interrupts his piano-tuning, just as he realized the same thing with his pubescent wife years earlier. Frances and her doomed attempts to baptize the twins. Macdonald shares with another of my favourites, Ronnie Burkett, a broad and unsentimental compassion for all her characters. There are precious few villains here (I suppose the nasty uncle Jameel would be closest) - even the father who eventually commits incestuous rape, a candidate for authorial disdain if there ever was one - is allowed his feelings, his own moments of virtue, of tenderness. The description of his experiences in World War One is quite simply horrifying. I felt muddy and bload-soaked after reading it. Macdonald plays happily in the ironies and inbetweens of race and of sexual orientation. Rose is both true woman and delightful in her mannish aspects; wearing a fedora and a suit, she passes as a man and she and Kathleen go out dancing together. Frances chooses a black man as her hero, and bears a child whom her tyrannically religious sister Mercedes declares is dead. It's only in the last few chapters that we see the survivors of the story come together and make some sense of it (complete with the help of a document - a family tree). This son is one of those survivors, along with Lily and Rose. The landscape is ever-present in this novel, not in any gushy Romantic way, but playing its part. The coastline, with its cliffs, its caves, its beach, plays its part in the drama. So too does the industrial urban landscape, though Macdonald does not take us down the mines. We do run along the railway tracks, though, and spend considerable time in the speakeasy where Frances becomes what I suppose we might call these days a lap-dancer. What kept me going through 600+ pages, though (not exactly a burden in this case) was the prose itself. Not ostentatious, just beautifully written, full of unexpected and accurate observation. I'm very glad I finally got around to reading this.