Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 21, 2009
Spinster's letters weave a mysterious tapestry
The Octave of All Souls, a Canadian novel, uses string of letters to reveal the kaleidoscope of a soul
The Octave of All Souls, by Robert Eady. (Editio Sanctus Martinus, Combermere, Ont.) 305 pages.
REVIEW BY DEBORAH GYAPONG
Robert Eady's first novel The Octave of All Souls deserves to be nominated for a major Canadian literary award. Even though it is profoundly Catholic, it might even win.
The "Catholic" qualifier should not deter those who have found much recent so-called Catholic fiction lacking in craftsmanship and annoyingly message-driven.
There is nothing the least bit preachy or sentimental in this insightful work. The characters are so lifelike that you see their gestures, their expression, you can hear the tone of voice, their conversations ring true.
Eady accomplishes same imaginative feat with his rendition of the fictional Ontario town of Strathearn. If you have lived anywhere near small town or rural Canada where Main streets still have idiosyncratic restaurants and businesses, a town still untouched by big box stores or shopping malls, this novel will make you ache with nostalgia and laugh with recognition.
His craftsmanship transports the reader into the town. I was sorry to finish The Octave of All Souls because I so enjoyed crossing that artistic threshold into this vividly imagined world.
His writing appeals to all the senses, so you smell the algae on the river, and see the shining black ice on the sidewalk or feel the bite of the November wind.
Eady, whose op eds have been widely published in major newspapers, has three previously published books of poetry to his credit.
His poet's ability to see and to convey with precision what he observes sets this novel apart.
But the novel has none of the affected, convoluted language that sometimes characterizes Canadian literature. Eady is able to capture the chattiness of his narrator's female voice without losing his poetic economy of language.
A master of the letter to the editor - 60 words or less - Eady also has great wit and humour that Catholic readers have probably recognized in the pages of Canada's major newspapers. He was also a contributing editor of Catholic Insight magazine for a number of years.
The Octave of All Souls is structured around letters written by a shy aging spinster to an Oblate missionary priest who is somewhere in Africa. She addresses him as "Dearest Friend" and signs her missives "J.T."
It soon becomes clear they attended the same Strathearn schools growing up and she is filling him in on the changes in the people and the town since he left.
J.T. has taken upon herself to perform a traditional Catholic practice of going to the cemetery on All Souls Day and every day of the octave to pray for the souls of 14 Strathearn residents who died in the previous year. As she goes to the cemetery each day, she writes about the present as well as the past.
Despite the use of the Catholic tradition to structure the book, non-Catholics would probably also enjoy the story.
Clearly no saint, J.T. confesses off the bat she can't stand the first person she is praying for, Paula Perristar, a former high school basketball star who became a town councillor. Yet J.T. dutifully goes to the cemetery to say the prayers anyway.
The letters start with anecdotes about the deceased townspeople, their entanglements and their battles. J.T. lives in an apartment over the bowling alley downtown.
We get to know her cats who go out on her fire escape, and see her view of the flat pebbled roof tops of nearby stores.
We accompany her to breakfast at the Democracity Café, a diner that was remodelled on themes borrowed from the 1939 World Fair in New York and left unchanged for decades. It is in this diner where many a petty argument or long-running feud plays out.
Gradually, the letters become more revealing. J.T. is no longer a cipher passing along amusing and well-observed stories about the townspeople, but unveiling her deepest self.
One might not think much would happen in the life of a shy, aging spinster, but Eady, with great tenderness and insight, shows how monumental under the surface even seemingly circumscribed lives can be.
It is a story of unrequited love, of despair and grace, of an uneducated woman's finding a mentor in her former high school English teacher, now retired, who forms a book club that exposes her to literature.
There is a profound mystery at the core of this book that opens up the meaning of the communion of the saints in eternity. Eady is able to show this in a way that resonates to the bone.
The novel reminds me of Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead in its structure and craftsmanship. Like Eady's book, Gilead is a first-person account via letters from an elderly pastor, who knows he is dying, to his six-year-old son.
The Octave of All Souls can be purchased from the publisher at PO Box 315, Combermere, ON K0J 1L0 ($29.95 Cdn. which includes mailing.) Email queries can be sent to OctaveofAllSouls@live.com.