A life is made up of many moments. Olive Senior’s Dancing Lessons sets out admirably to give us one ordinary life, but struggles under the weight of democracy: how to include so many people and do justice to them.
Her main woman, G (Gertrude Samphire), has been sent to Ellesmere Lodge, a retirement home, by her daughter, Celia, after a hurricane, while her house in rural Jamaica is being fixed. At the home, G finds herself stuck with a bunch of folk from a different social class. As she struggles to put up with them and puzzle them out, she gives us a winding reckoning of her own complex history through numbered entries in her notebook (which she gives to her daughter at the end of the novel).
A dignified, proud woman, G catalogues the hurt she has endured – emotional neglect, domestic violence, spousal abandonment, poverty, lies, the loss of several children and more – as she strives to understand it. She is worn out and hardened from it all, yet she has that sense of clarity that exhaustion can bring. Thus, when Mr. Bridges, with whom she forms a close companionship at Ellesmere Lodge, disappoints her, she is well able to take his measure and figure out precisely what he has been up to, rather than falling further down the well.
Senior is particularly deft at exploring social class, maternal terrain and distance. The territory she writes about could not interest this reader more.
I have a hearty tolerance for meandering narratives, but a protracted meander requires an immediacy that Senior’s understated prose doesn’t quite muster. G is sometimes overshadowed and diluted by all those clustering around her, competing within the novel, whom Senior darts to and from to help us understand what G has lived.
Toward the end of the novel, she resorts to resolution by conversational declarations, which is particularly unfortunate. The fact is that working-class lives do not tend to tie up and resolve in neat little bundles, and perhaps as writers we need to push form further to reflect this.
Much of the novel sashays into uncovering the loss of G’s children and the distance that has resulted between her and them. Celia went to a missionary couple, who adopted her as a young child; Shirley, who, unbeknownst to G, was addicted to crack cocaine, was killed by a stray bullet in New York; and G has never been sure what job her son Junior does and has never visited his home.
Curiously enough, this question of distance underscores thematically within narrative very successfully. Senior skillfully depicts the space between mother and children and all the misunderstanding and wondering that can ferment in the absence of knowledge. Also, the parallel existences of rural and urban and what the one doesn’t know of the other bind through the text.
What’s remarkable at times is Senior’s subtle depiction of family tension, the prodding between mother and daughter, the apprehension of what the one does or mainly does not know of the other. She also investigates how distance affects Jamaican families, with gun crime and drugs killing people’s children in New York and the narrative of how this news trickles home or does not. This is just one of so many kernels in Senior’s novel that in itself could be the subject matter for an entire novel. She’s a prolific writer and respected poet. Dancing Lessons is her first novel. She will tango on and we will be warmly listening.
Anakana Schofield is a Vancouver-based writer. Her novel Malarky is scheduled for publication in the spring.