For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading an average Canadian author’s royalty statement, you will see that while there may be plenty of glory, most of it is not financial. When artists are called “elite” by Conservative politicians, it brings forth a hearty chuckle by those of us who actually work as contemporary artists. We do lots of things to pay the bills, including occasional stints on arts councils or prize juries, deciding which lucky 12 or so writers will have some financial support that year. It’s a good gig, and occasionally while reading hundreds of manuscripts in progress, we will come across a story that stays with us for months, even years. Several years ago I had the pleasure of reading a short selection from a novel-in-progress about a young girl growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness. For years I have been desperate to know what happens next.
Watch How We Walk is the debut novel by poet Jennifer LoveGrove, and I’m happy to report it was worth the wait. Emily is an imaginative child growing up in a repressive Jehovah’s Witness family. Emily and her sister Lenora live in fear of the worldly people and culture outside the Kingdom Hall, those who will not make it to the paradise after the coming Armageddon. Her family is dysfunctional in some of the usual ways, in addition to several ways particular to the JoHo lifestyle. When we first meet Emily, she is just beginning to see that all is not as okay as it seems, as her older sister starts to challenge the teachings they were raised with. Emily hangs out with her cool uncle who’s more interested in David Bowie and some guys who live in a trailer than going door to door trying to recruit new followers. The spectre of being ostracized from the church haunts everything the family does.
Like most poets who write novels, LoveGrove doesn’t approach the storytelling process using a linear or familiar form. The structure poets usually employ can often look like origami, but this is a good thing. Watch How We Walk chapters alternate from the first-person point-of-view of protagonist Emily as a young adult and the third-person point-of-view of Emily as a child. This is a bit confusing at first, but LoveGrove eases us into both time periods, building on the crisis at the centre of the story, which involves Emily’s older sister Lenora. The isolation of Emily’s life in the city where she escapes after leaving the church is harrowing, and we watch her cling to newer, rigorous obsessions and fixations, as she tries to make sense of what happened, and what the world is like if it’s actually nothing like you were raised to believe.
Watch How We Walk is a thoughtful, well-crafted and impressive debut, and one of my favourite reads of 2013.
Zoe Whittall is the author of Holding Still for as Long as Possible, which will be published in a new edition next year.