- A Beauty
- Connie Gault
- McClelland & Stewart
- 336 pages
The beauty at the heart of Connie Gault's second novel is Elena Huhtala, an 18-year-old Finnish woman with Greta Garbo looks who lives with her father in 1930s small-town Saskatchewan. As the novel opens, the father, Matti Huhtala, has abandoned their profitless farm and left his teenage daughter to fend for herself. Alone and starving, Elena hitches a ride out of town with Bill Longmore, a red-haired young man in a gold Lincoln who "was good-looking without being handsome, which in that community meant he looked clean and respectable and quite a lot like one of them."
She soon finds herself in the town of Gilroy, Sask., reading palms for dimes and charming the locals, especially 11-year-old Ruth – and then Ruth's father, Davy. When Ruth tells him about the beauty with "honey-coloured hair" telling fortunes outside the general store, it isn't long before Ruth's family fortunes change permanently.
Spanning decades, A Beauty is narrated, eyewitness style, from multiple perspectives – including those of Pansy and Merv, the hotel proprietors in Addison, where Elena and Bill briefly stay; Peg, the owner of a shop in Charlesville, where Elena buys a dress; and Jerry Wong, a restaurant owner in Virginia Valley, where most of the characters stop for a meal at one point or another in the story. Gault, who has published several plays for stage and radio, as well as two short-story collections and an award-winning novel, Euphoria, has that rare talent that makes every character important, no matter how apparently peripheral their role in the story. Gault cares about the idiosyncrasies and distinct world views of each of the characters and these qualities extend to their narration. None of these narrators is "reliable," but none of them is entirely wrong, either. Each sees what they need to see. Ruth, for example: In Elena, she sees the self she wants to become – beautiful, mysterious and empowered. When Elena climbs out of Bill's car at the crossroads near Gilroy, attracted to the sight of a lone figure moving through the landscape, "I was the one she saw," Ruth claims. "I was that girl walking along the railway tracks, looking lonely."
Elena facilitates the fantasies of everyone she meets, in fact, though she hardly says a word. In the novel's opening pages, when the middle-aged Maria and Henrik Gustafson spot Elena seated on a swing outside her father's abandoned farm, she "saw Elena Huhtala sitting motionless on a swing with a cascading sunset behind her, and he saw Youth and Beauty." To Ruth and Davy, Elena is "romance personified" as she sits in the heat on Main Street waiting to read her next palm.
For Gault, this method of storytelling is about more than just perspectivism. Communities, in A Beauty, are storehouses of meaning. Each individual owns a piece of information, but requires the others to create the whole picture.
Gault is terrifyingly perspicacious about small-town life. One outstandingly awkward scene occurs in Jerry's restaurant, when Elena sits at a table normally reserved for Albert Earle and his wife. In the ensuing confusion, Betty Earle is forced to decide between a table near a doctor she despises and one near a rowdy family, and as a result the Earles are "stranded in the open middle of the Bluebird Café," where Betty is forced to look "at the Kulak brothers' backs as they bent over their plates, forks in constant motion."
Scenes like these are wickedly funny, but they are piercing, too: Gault is aware that the proximity afforded by life in small communities does not necessarily make for understanding and still less for compassion.
A lesser storyteller might choose to pinion the enigmatic Elena and make her the star of this novel, but Gault takes a more interesting approach. Elena anchors the plot, but the real beauty here is in the diversity of voices telling the story.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.
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