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J. Jill Robinson, author of “More in Anger”

Laura Vanags

More in Anger
J. Jill Robinson
Thomas Allen

The title of J. Jill Robinson's debut novel, More in Anger, is a twist on a line from Hamlet, "a countenance more in sorrow than in anger" – one aptly chosen for her fictional treatise on the toxic patterns of family, and how such destructive emotional behaviours are absorbed by offspring only to be inflicted again, unwittingly, upon the next generation. The three women at the centre of Robinson's multigenerational work rail against these patterns. Countless novels have been written about family dysfunction, but few so precisely capture verbal abuse and its long-lasting psychological effects.

The narrative is told in three parts: the first, with Opal King and her marriage to a cold, ill-tempered Scotsman; followed by the story of her daughter, Pearl, who receives the education her mother never had but finds herself even more bitter and resentful, mired in child-rearing and housekeeping; and last, that of Pearl's youngest daughter, Vivien, who inherits her mother's spiteful passion and veers closest to self-destruction. Of the three, Vivien's character contains the most hope, as her fiery determination may very well enable her to succeed in breaking the cycle of passive-aggression handed down from her forebears.

This three-pronged structure proves essential in fairly depicting Robinson's characters, for at times certain individuals, such as Opal's husband, Mac, and daughter, Pearl, can seem so harsh as to be inhuman. From Pearl we get a very different account of her parents, and come to understand her frustrations even if we disagree with her bad behaviour; likewise with Vivien.

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Character and the overt ways in which ridicule and mistreatment shape the psyche are where Robinson overwhelmingly succeeds. Early in their marriage, Opal's husband buys her a piano. After she plays it for him the first time, he abruptly rises and informs her, "I bought you the piano for your own pleasure, not mine. I'll thank you not to play while I'm here." Crushed, Opal turns inward: "Perhaps, it occurred to her one day, she had deformities of person or personality that only she could not see, and that her own family had loved her too much ever to point out. It was such a gradual and subtle erosion of her confidence that she barely noticed it; it was as though her self-esteem were a bar of rosewater soap run under warm water for hours on end."

Even education, which Robinson shows as a way out of domestic confines, is another delusion. For when it comes to overcoming family dysfunction, each person must learn how to break the cycle of lashing out at oneself and others, of self-betrayal. Vivien's battle with her mother culminates in another, that of addiction. Her young daughter provides an opportunity for redemption, as well the questions which form the novel's resounding note: "She thought about responsibility and how you had to take it. You had to own up when you screwed up, you had to say you were sorry, maybe over and over and over again, and you had to keep trying. What else could you possibly do and still stand yourself? What else could you possibly do and still be a mother?" No university degree can accomplish that.

Vanessa Blakeslee recently completed her first novel. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review and the Bellingham Review, among many other publications.

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