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Karen Hill sits with her brother, author Lawrence Hill, in this 1983 photo.
Karen Hill sits with her brother, author Lawrence Hill, in this 1983 photo.

The remarkable story of Karen Hill’s posthumous debut Add to ...

Last month, a book launch was held to celebrate the publication of Karen Hill’s first novel, Café Babanussa, which she’d spent almost half her life writing. It took place in a community centre in the east-end Toronto co-op where she’d lived, along with her daughter, for more than two decades. Family and friends filled the room, as well as some of the fellow writers who’d help her shape the manuscript over the years.

“You could feel a lot of enthusiasm for the book,” says her elder brother, the singer-songwriter Dan Hill. “And, of course, a lot of love for Karen, as well.”

It was, adds Dan, a “bittersweet” event; absent from the afternoon’s festivities was Karen, who died in March, 2014, at the age of 56.

Café Babanussa arrived in bookstores earlier this week, more than 20 years after Hill first began work on the novel. It tells the story of Ruby Edwards, a young woman who escapes her suburban Toronto existence and overbearing father for West Berlin, where she finds a new family in the city’s expat community, a diverse group of musicians and anarchists, drug addicts and dancers. The novel is a thinly veiled account of her own life; Hill left Toronto for Germany in 1979, where she remained for almost a decade.

“For her, leaving Canada represented a chance to find herself,” says her other sibling, the novelist Lawrence Hill. “To discover herself sexually, and politically, and racially. … Europe, for her, was like a total liberation.”

Set in the 1980s in a divided city, it probes the mind of a woman equally divided – by her family history, by her race, and, ultimately, by her mental health. Like her mother and two aunts, Karen was eventually diagnosed as bipolar; in the novel’s foreword, Lawrence Hill writes about a phone call he received one night in 1984 from Karen’s first husband, who said Karen, 26 at the time, was unwell.

“She was not making sense in her head,” Hill writes. “She was pacing the apartment, acting irrationally and speaking in gibberish. He did not think she could be left alone.”

It was the start of a lifelong struggle.

When she returned to Canada in the late eighties after the end of her second marriage, she started work on the manuscript. The author Sarah Sheard, who mentored Hill through the Humber School for Writers’ correspondence program, recalls that Hill “wrote with tremendous energy.

“I was thrilled somebody was so willing to reveal herself without holding back at all. There was no coy self-consciousness. She was an earthy, exuberant, sexual woman, and that kind of energy really came off the page.”

She wrote under difficult circumstances – not only did her health prevent her from holding down a steady job, she lived in the shadows of her famous siblings, as well as that of their father, Daniel G. Hill, who served as both the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner and the Ontario Ombudsman. In Europe, Dan says, “it was liberating to be in a place where no one knew anything about her family, and didn’t ask the typical questions about her brothers or father.” Back in Canada, “people were always going up to her saying, ‘When are you going to make a record? When are you going to write a book?’ And so I think that made it even harder [when] she couldn’t get that book deal,” Dan says.

After becoming ill again at the start of 2014, she was admitted to hospital; two weeks later, having dinner with her daughter while out on a weekend pass, Hill lost consciousness after choking on a piece of food. She fell into a coma, and died five days later, on March 27, in the same room at St. Michael’s Hospital where her father had died, 11 years earlier.

The process of finding a publisher for her novel began almost immediately. Within a month the manuscript was acquired by HarperCollins Canada, which had rejected an earlier version of Café Babanussa years earlier. (All proceeds from the novel will go to Hill’s daughter, and a scholarship in Hill’s name was established at Humber.) The novel was co-edited by Lawrence Hill and HarperCollins editorial director Jennifer Lambert, who wanted to remain as true as possible to Karen’s vision.

“You can’t be too invasive,” Lambert says. “What you really need to do is look at the document that you have, understand what the author’s intentions were, and then try to, if anything, just shape what is already on the page.”

Lawrence Hill says he hopes what’s on the page sparks a conversation around mental illness, something his sister battled for 30 years. Yet, despite the hospitalizations, despite the medications that “numbed” her creativity and despite the rejections from publishers, his sister persevered.

“She had to wait for moments when her head was working,” he says. “I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been. To have to put [the novel] down for six months, a year, and then come back to it. And each time she came back to it she was, in some ways, more beaten up by the process, in terms of treatments and drugs. It was like she’d been pummelled, and then she comes back out of that pummelling and has to try and write again. Just the creative challenge, to me, is mind-boggling.

“Sometimes we wondered if she’d pull it off,” he admits. “Like, would this be possible? But she was tenacious. She must have had a fountain of energy in order to do it with the load she was dragging behind her. But she did.”

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