Review: How the Blessed Live

03Jun10

Originally published in The Danforth Review, 2002

The first sentence in How the Blessed Live stretches out like a cat: “Beyond a winding ribbon of sand, the water of English Bay supports mammoth bellies of cargo ships.” The first novel by Susannah M Smith is a carefully crafted book. Her main difficulty, as is the case with possibly all such novels, is to develop character and plot that stand out and aren’t buried somewhere under poetic observation. At this, the book succeeds, though it takes some time to get there.

The reader meets Lucy, who is “starting over, this minute,” but soon finds the past isn’t so easily buried. She controls her diet intensely, wants to become “only the essential scaffolding.” She meets Phineas, a kind and eccentric artist who operates a performing arts group called the Holy Circus. We learn about her family – her twin brother Levi and father Daniel who still grieves for the loss of their mother. We learn one more detail about Lucy – that she is pregnant. And then it takes a while for more to be revealed. For Lucy, the present is still strongly tied to the past, and to demonstrate this the narrative shifts around, taking a step backwards for each step forward. The reader should be patient in reading this novel, not because it’s badly written, but because poetic observation and occasional slow progress demand it.

The novel is not long, yet during this middle stretch it sags a little, mostly because the reader is pushing through careful description and small events without feeling like there is much story for all this to hang on. Not yet, anyway. Even the minor characters – who sometimes begin to be interesting – are dismissed, sometimes only existing in short exchanges designed to reveal something about a major character.  Lucy meets Rosa the bird woman from the Holy Circus, who is inexplicably aggressive, apparently just so we can see the reaction from Lucy. Lucy gets up and leaves and Rosa is never seen in the novel again. She meets Cassy, who lasts a little longer, but then goes from nice to nasty in the space of a few pages, and disappears.  She does, however, introduce Lucy to Phineas, and help us see how vulnerable Lucy is at the moment. All things seem to exist only to point to Lucy and her family, so when the reader is made to wait for more to be revealed about them, the wait begins to feel a little long.

Fortunately, the book wins out – it’s worth the investment of time, and even the slow stretches are populated with interesting moments and memorable description: “She smiles as she approaches the table, and so does he, his teeth a white puncture glowing in the murk of the room.” Surroundings feel typical at times but then swerve into the surreal, as when Lucy and Phineas go to a bank to visit a woman who keeps herself mostly submerged in a tank of water. “Why a bank?” she asks him. “That’s where she wanted to be.  Like all that money, I suppose, tucked away for later.” Conversations also feel natural at times, and at other times awkward and unrealistic. Within five minutes of meeting each other, Levi details his art and Alex replies “One of my favourite things is being covered in plaster by cute boys.  What’s one of your favourite things?”  When an old woman describes France (another brief encounter for Lucy) she speaks as concisely as much of the description in the book: “Croissants and cream sauces.  Big bowls of milk and coffee.” It’s as though the novel, like Lucy, wishes to be only the essential scaffolding. And yet a lot is suggested here. On occasion, the prose is overdone, with images that drop into a scene like a boulder into a puddle. Lucy takes a shower and feels “the vast oiled machine of the cosmos clicking behind her skull.”  In a novel, poetic language goes out on a limb in that it’s either very effective or overdone and tiresome. Smith succeeds often, and well. Still, the reader should be prepared to chew on statements like “The earth is held together by burials.”

But it makes little sense to be critical of an author for failing to accomplish something she isn’t trying to do, and Smith clearly wasn’t after realism here. At least, not complete realism. The novel works because it’s balanced between a modern urban tale and mythology – it’s something of both. In crafting the book, Smith was inspired by the Egyptian legend of Isis and Osiris, even as references to Pandora’s box, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland are also introduced. The context of a modern mythological tale allows all the poetic description to feel appropriate even while explaining away the occasional odd scene or line. The novel suggests, simply from the way it is shaped, that mythology is not distant, it’s what we live, and we all have our parts.  But readers should see for themselves. I’ve purposely avoided revealing more about the plot of How the Blessed Live, because despite the occasional heavy-handed moment, watching it unfold is a rewarding journey.

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