Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout

Like many others, I was blown away by Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I thought it a remarkable set of linked short stories that came together as a portrait of a peculiar and—to me—fascinating woman. So I went looking for her earlier novels, including this, her first novel.

Isabelle and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, inhabit an uncomfortable edge of the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. On the eastern side of the river lies Oyster Point, the part of town where the professional classes live with its simple Congregational church. The western side, known as the Basin, is dominated by the mill and the Catholic church. Although Isabelle works in the mill’s office, she chose to live in Oyster Point, with dreams of moving up in the world, but in essence stranding herself and her daughter between two worlds.

As the story opens, Isabelle’s desire for quiet and order and respectability, as well as her close relationship with her daughter, have been ruthlessly thwarted. Amy, who is working in the mill’s office for the summer, is in disgrace and it has something to do with a Mr. Robertson coming to town.

The opening is actually quite interesting. None of the characters appears on the first page. Instead, it is a description of all the strangeness of that summer: the terrible heat that dried up the river, leaving the stench of the mill’s effluence; the crops that didn’t grow right; the UFOs that had been sighted up north. It’s a different sort of in media res opening: we immediately know that the time is out of joint, with no one to set it right.

While Amy’s actions seem to have been the cause of the disruptions in her and Isabelle’s lives, the story takes us deeper into the pretenses and fantasies of all the characters as we move backward and forward in time. Amy and her new friend Stacy have banded together as outsiders at school, sneaking into the woods during breaks to smoke cigarettes. Amy envies Stacy her boyfriend, but doesn’t recognise her friend’s morning sickness for what it is. Her solid world is rocked as Amy tries to come to terms with her emerging sexuality and to find a place for herself other than the one her mother has prepared for her.

I am tired of glut of novels about middle-aged and older men falling in love with teenaged girls. Oh their joy and heartbreak. Oh their cruel, middle-aged and boring wives. How refreshing to have here, for once, the story from the girl’s point of view. And it is brilliantly done. So many details took me back to my own teen years, my confused and inchoate yearnings.

I love the portrait of Isabelle, hamstrung by her own yearnings, trying to break out of her narrow world. The portraits of the other women in the office, Fat Bev and Dottie and the others, are equally superb. I knew women like these when I worked in a factory. I love the way they rely on each other and the competitions and kindnesses they offer each other. As Avery Clark’s secretary, Isabelle sits among them but is in a superior position, isolated and stranded at work as at home. Strout occasionally soars up to the 10,000-foot level and gives us an omniscient view of the townsfolk as a whole, as in the first page. This unusual tactic isolates Isabelle and Amy even more, denying them even the empathy of the reader.

Although I’ve not lived in a small town, I recognise the way lives are intertwined, the way you cannot hide from your mistakes. I recognise the feuds and the friendships, the shifting alliances. I feel as though I’ve lived another life.

What book about small town life have you read?

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Oliver has produced an excellent introduction to poetry. Although it is written for the beginning writer, the book is also tremendously useful for the beginning reader, someone who would like to read poetry but would like some guidance on what to look for. Many of us were persuaded by grade school English classes that poetry was complicated and difficult to understand. Even if we thought we understood a poem, it turned out there were all kinds of hidden meanings that we’d missed.

Oliver lays it out clearly with plenty of examples to illustrate her points. She covers the use of sound, not just of words but of their components. She goes into detail, explaining semi-vowels, aspirates and mutes. She takes Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening apart to show how the sounds work, but then reassures the despairing beginner, that these tools of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are things anyone can learn and then, once confident, forget. You will be able to use them without consciously thinking of them.

In an extended chapter on the line, Oliver explains how meter and line length contribute to the emotional experience of the poem. She reviews all those pesky terms like dactyl and spondee and anapest, showing how they are used to imbue the poem with movement and emotion. Even for an experienced poet, reviewing these basics can be helpful. I appreciated being reminded of patterns I rarely use.

She gives examples of ways to vary the rhythm of the line for different effects, adding that “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures.” She also notes something that has interested me lately: that different readers may find different rhythms in a poem, stress different syllables. To illustrate, she provides four ways to read Keats’s line “Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art—“.

Because of my interest in individual words, I especially enjoyed her chapter on diction or word choice. She notes that the factors one considers as one selects or discards a word are sound, accuracy and connotation. I also found her chapter on form and free verse to be exceptionally useful for those recurrent discussions of whether a particular poem is really prose broken into lines.

Imagery of course lies at the core of my poetry. I like the way she brings in sensory detail. Also, this strikes home: “The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject.” She says that if a poem about flowers is “thin”, it is most likely because the poet “has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

I highly recommend this book to beginning readers and writers, as well as to experienced poets who would like a refresher.

What book would you recommend to someone who wants to learn how to appreciate poetry?

Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li

I thoroughly enjoyed Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and looked forward to reading this novel. It begins with the death of a woman, Shaoai, who has been incapacitated since being poisoned 21 years earlier. Boyang, a prosperous businessman and friend of the family, is handling the funeral arrangements. He has emailed news of the death to his childhood friends Moran and Ruyu, women who are now living in the U.S. but expects no answer from them. There has been no answer to any of his regular emails about Shaoai’s condition.

Ruyu, an orphan brought up by two Catholic great-aunts, had learned to hold herself aloof from others. She had God in her life and needed no one else. She is sent to Beijing for school, to live with Shaoai’s family. Boyang and Moran, inseparable friends, live in the same courtyard and adopt the peculiar girl, including her in their normal childhood pursuits, such as biking and swimming, hoping to bring her out of herself and making her more like them: warm and open and happy.

However, as we get to know the three as adults, it becomes apparent that just the opposite has happened. Moran and Boyang, like Ruyu, shut themselves off from others. And from the past. The “coldness of silence” holds each of them in an icy fortress.

The story moves back and forth in time as well as alternating between the three former friends. It has elements of a murder mystery: who poisoned Shaoai? The chemical was traced to Boyang’s mother’s lab, which the three friends had just visited. It also has elements of a political allegory: Shaoai’s poisoning occurred just after the Tiananmen Square protests. A little older than the three friends, her radical politics had cost her a place at university. Her silencing, gradual decline, and death reflect the fate of the protestors and their dreams of democracy.

While I wanted to learn who poisoned Shaoai, I struggled with much of the book. Their sad and drab lives do not make for the most enjoyable reading. There are no large events to spark the long stretch between being introduced to these peculiar people and learning the truth. Or something like the truth. I enjoyed Li’s prose, though some of the philosophical bits made me stop and reread them several times, koans that only reluctantly yielded up a semblance of meaning.

I kept reading because I wondered what would happen to these three people, so damaged by a single event in their childhood, their lives warped and left empty. Or rather kept empty, by constant and ruthless exercise of the will. We all find our own balance between solitude and society, but these three represent something quite new to me. That to me is the real mystery, more urgent than knowing what actually caused Shaoai’s death.

What novel have you read that contains a mystery, yet is not a traditional mystery novel?

The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard

Through swirling snow Abby Reynolds catches sight of her elderly neighbor, Nadine Newquist , struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, dressed only in a deep rose bathrobe. Abby brakes, which sends her old truck into a spin and then long skid, backwards towards town, picking up speed and making her stomach drop as if on a roller coaster, back the way she’d come, backwards in time.

And we’re off. Pickard’s story of small town lives, the tangled life-long friendships, the secrets and lies, careens on with the reader, breathless, racing to keep up.

Abby owns a small Lawn & Landscape business outside the Kansas town of Small Plains. Nadine is the mother of Abby’s long-lost love, Mitch, who left without a word seventeen years earlier, on the frigid January night a teenaged girl was found murdered. The girl was never identified, and the town buried her. Since then, some people have claimed miraculous and healing powers for the girl they call the Virgin of Small Plains.

The story moves around in time, taking us back to that night when everything changed and then into the present again with the search for Nadine. Abby’s best friend, Rex, the sheriff, son of the former sheriff, watches with dismay as Abby seems to have settled into a relationship with his brother, Patrick, the town’s bad boy. Mitch debates whether to return to his hometown.

I wanted to study this book, which was recommended to me as one that compelled you to turn the pages, one that got a grip on you and wouldn’t let you go. I wondered how that could work without car chases and ticking clocks, but I certainly wasn’t going to find out, not on that first read anyway. No, I just wanted to pry out all the secrets and understand, not just what had happened, but why.

Only when I finished was I able to go back and find some of Pickard’s techniques. There are many truly wonderful scenes, set pieces almost, that call out our own memories, making us sympathise with the characters. There are mysterious moments, like the woman in the rose bathrobe in the snow, that make us read on to find out the story behind them—why was she there? Pickard expertly withholds information until you can’t bear for her not to reveal it. Even if you guess at some of what happened, you want to know why. Plus she’s not afraid to go big: often novels seem to drag a bit in the middle as authors save their good stuff for the climax, but Pickard doesn’t hesitate to throw it all at us, and then do it again.

There are flaws to the book, though I could only see them in retrospect. The multiple points of view, many of them unnecessary to the story, keep the characters at arm’s length. I discussed this book in two different book clubs and both were unable to decide who the main character was. I went with Abby because she was the first person we met, but a strong case could be made for Rex, Mitch and a couple of others. After the mesmerizing first part of the book, the plot seemed to take over and characters relegated to the back seat.

We also struggled with genre. The story has some elements of a mystery, a romance, and even magical realism. It includes some of the conventions of each, but not enough of any one to satisfy expectations. I settled for calling it a small-town drama. It probably says more about me than the book, but I interpreted all the supposedly magical elements as realistic, somewhat unlikely but not outside the bounds of possibility. I love out-and-out magical realism like Borges, Marquez and Allende write, but this kind of teasing maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t didn’t work for me.

The ending disappointed almost everyone, with things tied up a little too neatly, a little too quickly and conveniently.

Still, the book is a wonder. Pickard captures the Kansas landscape, its weather and prairie flowers. She also captures the rhythms and relationships of small-town life—or so I am assured, being a city girl myself. Used to relative anonymity, I have trouble imagining the comfort and claustrophobia of a small town where everyone knows, not just your name and everything you’ve ever done, but your parents and theirs before them.

I never fail to be fascinated by the damage caused by secrets and lies. Perhaps they are even harder to avoid in a small community. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the way people elevated the unknown, murdered girl into some kind of saint. I remember visiting Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried, and being shocked by the busloads of sick and injured people who expected her to heal them. One of my friends said that desperate people look for solace anywhere they can. She added that when you know nothing about someone, you can attribute any qualities to them—something we’ve seen happen all too often with celebrities and athletes.

Have you read a book recently that you could not put down?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s always a bit dangerous to reread books you loved when young. Recently I reread A Wrinkle in Time and enjoyed it perhaps even more than I did back then. However, this third installment of the series featuring the Murry family dragged for me. Perhaps it was the weather or my mood, but I struggled to pay attention to it.

Thanksgiving has brought the Murry clan together. Ten years have passed since A Wind in the Door, the second book. Charles Wallace is fifteen and still in touch with his mysterious abilities. Meg is not only grown up and married to Calvin, she is expecting a baby. Calvin himself is away at a conference in Britain, but his mother has joined them, much to the Murry’s surprise. An inarticulate and apathetic woman, Mrs. O’Keefe has demonstrated only dislike for Meg and the Murrys and indifference to her son.

The somewhat overly idyllic (other than Meg’s mother-in-law) family get-together is interrupted by a phone call from the President, who often consults with Mr. Murry, warning that nuclear war is about to erupt thanks to a South American dictator, “Mad Dog” Branzillo. Mrs. O’Keeffe rouses herself to recite an ancient rune and insist that Charles Wallace must prevent the catastrophe.

Charles Wallace heads out to the star-watching rock, asking Meg to remain at home and kythe with him, i.e., communicate telepathically. Although he does not know what to expect, a unicorn appears who is able to put him “within” other people. The unicorn cautions him that he must become the other person, forgetting himself and his own thoughts so as not to confuse the person.

At this point, Meg and Charles Wallace essentially disappear from the story, which instead follows the succession of people whom Charles Wallace goes “within”. Most of these people are found at the rock itself; I loved thinking about the various people who have inhabited a small plot of land over the centuries. However, I found the similarity of names confusing and eventually tiresome. We meet Madoc, Madog, Maddux, and Mad Dog; Gwydder, Gedder, and Gwen; Zyllie, Zyllah, Zylle; plus two Branwens. I was also jerked out of the story late in the game when Mrs. Murry suddenly realizes that the names Madoc and Mad Dog may be related. She’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist. The whole family is supposed to be super intelligent. Yet no one thought of this before.

The idea that an individual and his or her choices can change the fate of the entire world inspires in me equal part happiness and fear. Since my choices have almost never turned out the way I expected, I tend to approach them with trepidation. But I did appreciate that the way to foster change is first to listen, as Charles Wallace is ordered to do.

I had some other issues with the story. One is the relegation of the women characters to a role that has no opportunities for intelligence and is limited to wife/girlfriend/mother. Another would be the racist implications of the constant injunction that you could tell the good guy because he has blue eyes, not to mention the whole South American thing.

The loss of Meg and Charles Wallace as characters leaves a huge empty space in the book, but there is still much to like. The unicorn is given a pretty good personality and escapes being treacly. And then there’s the whole business about the space-time continuum which I find endlessly fascinating.

One of my two favorite parts is the title, a quote from a Conrad Aiken poem. I just love the phrase and appreciate how it captures the essence of the story. The other is the emergence of an unexpected hero. I think the part in the Harry Potter series that moved me the most was when Neville Longbottom—well, no spoilers, though I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the story. Similarly, here my heart lifted and I forgave L’Engle everything when I came to that part.

Did you read Madeleine L’Engle’s books when young? Have you reread them recently?

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I have sometimes heard this book pronounced the only craft book that a fiction writer needs. Indeed, it has much to teach the writer. But it is even more valuable to the reader who wants to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the curtain: why some stories are more compelling than others, why some sentences bore you or take your breath away, why some characters seem as real as the person sitting across from you.

Have you ever wondered how in the world black letters on paper can make us feel as though we’ve lived through an intense experience? What makes us believe some characters are real and others are not? How do writers make us see what the character sees, feel fear when she is in danger and grief at her loss? Why do some books work and others don’t, and what do we mean by a book “working”.

Wood is a critic whose work I’ve enjoyed for years. The breadth of his reading is apparent in the number of diverse examples he gives to illustrate his ideas, using books ranging from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

He starts out talking about point of view:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking a speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for–‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

You can also see from this excerpt is what a joy it is to read his prose. Lucid yet intriguing. And it illustrates something he brings up later in the book: how a detail or a single word can open a space that excites a reader’s curiosity and interest, a technique Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity” in Will in the World, his 2004 study of Shakespeare that I learned a lot from. Look at that phrase: “narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character”. It is “bend” that is both surprising and so right; it is that image that draws us in.

Having long enjoyed James Wood’s reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Times, I was thrilled to immerse myself in this book. And I’ve reread it several times, not to mention dipping into it when struggling with some writing task. The more I write and read fiction, the more value I find in this book.

He has chapters on creating characters and how to make their dialogue work. He talks about how to make these characters engage our sympathies and ways to move back and forth in time effectively. Most delightfully for me as a poet, he examines how the very sound of words and phrases can intensify meaning. And all with an extravagance of examples.

But this is less a craft book than it is an analysis of how to read fiction. Yes, it is useful for writers, but even more so for readers. If you want your book club’s discussions to go a little deeper than I liked/disliked the book, then give them this book. It will give you the language and ideas to explore what causes those reactions.

Are you in a book club? What book prompted your most interesting discussion?

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Why not a novel written as a self-help book? In Hamid’s novel, the unnamed protagonist is presented as the prototype for achieving the title’s goal, suggesting that if the reader follows the same path, he too will achieve it. The Asian country where he lives is also unidentified.

The book is entirely in the second person (you), conflating you the reader with you the protagonist. It’s an interesting experiment. In some ways, this device works quite well. It reminds us that this in fact is exactly what good fiction does: it makes us feel as though we actually are the protagonist. Hamid does this with a nudge in the ribs, inviting us to laugh along. Also, we are intrigued by the tension of being both reader and protagonist, as well as the interplay of self-help language and the reality of the protagonist’s struggle. And tension is what keeps us reading, as we are reminded by Donald Maass, literary critic, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire.

In other ways, the device detracts from the story. One member of my book club, driven mad by what one reviewer calls the “extravagant use of the second person”, was unable to finish the book. For me, it had the effect of keeping me at a distance. I don’t know if it was the second person point of view (all those yous!), the lack of a name for the protagonist, the absence of much sense of the characters’ feelings, or my own analytical curiosity as to how this experiment would work, but I felt as though I were viewing the events of the novel from 20,000 feet. I could summon no emotion for any of the characters.

And because of that, I was bored. There seemed to be an empty space at the center of the novel, as another person in my book club said. An interesting experiment, often quite funny, but I didn’t find it compelling.

However, in yet another testament to the variety of tastes and reader experiences, many in my book club loved the book. They disagreed with me about the emotion, claiming to have felt the protagonist’s ambition, moral quandaries and griefs. One person was completely charmed by the protagonist’s romance with someone called only “the pretty girl”. Many found themselves laughing frequently, enjoying the little jokes, such as the chapter titles.

Other factors that kept me at a distance was the speed at which we zipped through the protagonist’s life and the banality of that life. To encompass a lifetime in a very small book means moving quickly, dipping in here and there to provide scenes and then pulling away again. And the arc of the protagonist’s life is mostly the boiled down stereotype of everyman in our capitalist world; it’s a story that’s been told a million times, with little to set it apart or make it new.

It’s as though Hamid is trying to see how far he can stretch the illusion of fiction, how much he can reveal its essential phoniness, without losing the reader. If he lost me and a couple of others, he certainly didn’t lose the majority of readers in my book club.

What book have you and your friends disagreed about?

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels, such as The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. I also was intrigued by his memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me, so I jumped at the chance to read this newest memoir by him. I was also lucky enough to hear him read from it at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore.

I really enjoy Norman’s voice. It is smart without being strident, perceptive without being pushy. He doesn’t shy away from his own failings, but tempers them with his appreciation of the people he encounters. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories.

Most memoirs are a single narrative, but this one is a bit different. It is made up of five discreet pieces. What they have in common is not theme–he says in the Introduction that he is “loathe to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not.” Instead each occurs in a place that is meaningful to him.

The pieces are arranged chronologically, starting with one set during the summer of 1964 when the teen-aged Norman worked in a bookmobile, and ending with one set in 2003 when he and his family were summering in Vermont while tragedy struck their home back in Washington, D.C.

Because we are viewing experiences through the mind of one man, we do begin to see patterns and associations. For instance, birds are a constant, from the ducks, gulls and swans at Reeds Lake where the fifteen-year-old finds refuge to the Western Oystercatcher that helps Norman heal in the final piece of the book.

And one thing leads to another. Books on birds and animals of the Arctic from the bookmobile later steer him to collecting folktales from Inuit people in the Northwest Territories. A girlfriend in London takes him to Saskatchewan. Seeing a Confederate soldier outside a Vermont cafe somehow prepares us for the dangers Norman encounters when he misjudges other people. Such subtle techniques give the book continuity.

All five pieces evoke particular places and experiences that Norman struggles to make sense of and fit into the life he is making for himself. Many are hilarious, such as the Inuit rock band that specialises in John Lennon’s songs:

Peter had a voice that made Bob Dylan seem like Pavarotti, but what did it matter? With desperate, joyful abandon he shouted, “I got my Eskimo freak on!” –wildly gyrating in classic rock-star style, wailing.

Other experiences go deep into what it means to feel your family is being threatened. Detail by detail Norman builds up each world, each experience. When a Quagmiriut Inuit shaman comes to heal and put protection on Norman’s violated home, we learn that he is wearing “blue jeans, a white shirt, shoes and socks, and a light brown sports jacket” and has somehow smuggled in a caribou shoulder bone. Norman feeds him “scrambled eggs with lox, potatoes, and black coffee.” These details fit seamlessly into the story and give it depth.

Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. We feel the urge to make the pieces fit together, to have it all make sense. The danger is in either losing some of our experiences or altering them to make them match. We are used to stories with an overall narrative arc. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

Have you read any of Howard Norman’s books? Which is your favorite?

Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders

The subtitle of this small book is An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet said. They can clarify or obfuscate.

This delightful book, a most welcome gift, gathers words from many languages that have no equivalent in English. Each is defined and illustrated and given a sentence or two of description. Some are words already familiar to me, such as hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning nostalgia for home, a home you’ve lost forever or perhaps one that you have not yet found.

Most, though, are new to me and are deliciously apt. One that I will use often is mangata, a Swedish word meaning “the road-like reflection of the moon in the water.” Another is meraki, a Greek adjective describing that feeling of being in the zone, of giving yourself over completely to some activity.

There are dozens of languages represented, common and obscure: German, Yiddish, Portuguese, Farsi, Inuit, Urdu, Wagaman. I love exploring these words and thinking about the experiences they embody.

In writing poetry, of course, I am always searching for just the right word, one with the right sound and the precise connotations to convey as much as possible. Each day I choose a word to roll around in the back of my mind, testing out the image it calls forth, the particular music of its pronunciation. It may be a common word, such as “lane”, or something more complex such as “palimpsest”. My reflections on many of these words and haiku using them can be found on Twitter using the hashtag #poetswords.

So this book is a treasure trove for me. I will continue to meditate on these words, giving each its due. However, I believe, given my predilection for Lagavulin, that the word I will use most often is one from the Gaelic: Sgriob, a noun that “Refers to the peculiar itchiness that settles on the upper lip before taking a sip of whiskey.”

What new word have you learned recently that interests or delights you?

A Map of Glass, Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart is one of my favorite authors, as you can probably tell by how many of her books I’ve reviewed here. I first heard of her some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. She was introduced by Timothy Findley, another of my favorite authors and one who is sorely missed. She in turn acknowledged him as one of her mentors. Before you say, oh those Canadians are so polite, let me just add that I have found this great generosity in every writing community into which I’ve stuck a toe.

Appropriately enough for this season of extraordinary cold and snowfall, this novel starts with an older man stumbling through the snow, a man whom we quickly understand seems to be suffering from a form of dementia. However, he is driven to find a place, an island, and has a map of shoreline in his mind even when the words to describe it have been lost.

The man is Andrew Woodman. His frozen body is found on the island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River by Jerome McNaughton, an artist who has come at the tail end of winter to find inspiration in the grim landscape. While not sure of what he is after, Jerome is drawn to decay and change, winter ice breaking up, branches hanging on still to last season’s twigs and seed pods. “But it was not the quickening of nature that intrigued him, rather the idea of nature’s memory and the way this unstable broken river had build itself briefly into another shape, another form, before collapsing back into what was expected of it.”

When he returns to Toronto, Jerome is sought out by Sylvia Bradley, a housewife living 30 miles from the island, a woman who has been severely sheltered. Seeing the world through her eyes, we understand why her parents and then husband keep her so enclosed: as a child she was so overwhelmed by the world that she made it go away most of the time. She fixated on rituals and the small things of her enclosed world.

Sylvia has developed a friendship with Julia, a blind woman for whom she makes tactile maps of places out of fabric and other materials. However, the great change in Sylvia’s life came when she met Andrew, a casual encounter on a street in town, and through him learned about love and the joy and pain and attention that comes with it.

When I was a child, I believed in places rather than people. Trees and shorelines and paths through the woods seemed more reliable to me, more constant. I was shattered to learn that this was not true, that trees may be cut down, shorelines eroded, and beloved places sold out from under you to be transformed beyond recognition.

This is a book about a place, seen through the lens of people who lived there. It’s about what we can learn of people through their places. Through Andrew’s journals we learn more about the island and the peninsula by it where Sylvia and Andrew’s ancestors live. We learn how these people are changed by this place and the place changed by them. Jerome says, “‘. . . after reading Andrew’s journals, I think maybe landscape—place—makes people more knowable. Or it did in the past. It seems there’s not much of that left now. Everyone’s moving, and the landscape, well, the landscape is disappearing.'”

Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.

What places hold great significance for you?