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The Opening Sky: An age-old tale made fresh through evocative prose

The Opening Sky
Joan Thomas
McClelland & Stewart,
368 pages

"Never explain, never apologize," is part of a quotation attributed to Nellie McClung, the title of a chapter in Joan Thomas's novel The Opening Sky, and an admirable motto, unless one happens to be parent to a young person whose behaviour embodies it. Which is the predicament in which Aiden and Liz find themselves.

Spirited Sylvie, an idealistic university student, discovers she's pregnant five months along. To her mother, Liz, the situation is a professional blow – she's the executive director of Winnipeg's Sexual Education Resource Centre. Even with her usual wry outlook, the irony is too much.

Neither Liz nor Aiden – a therapist, supposedly an expert in human behaviour – ever fancied themselves the kind of people who'd encounter such a crisis. Sylvie too, growing up in Winnipeg's "Granola Belt," has always been consumed by larger concerns – polar ice caps, world hunger, the eradication of poverty. Her situation is an anachronism, conjuring images of shotguns and young couples getting married because it was "the right thing to do."

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But what is the right thing now? Should Sylvie stay in school? Give up her baby? Are Liz and Aiden obliged to provide financial support, or to interrupt their own comfortable lives to raise their pregnant teenager's child? These are loaded question.

Without explanation or apology, Sylvie decides to keep her baby, a plan as simple as her worldview. When the baby is born, however, life itself proves more challenging, sending Sylvie's own life and her family's spiralling into further crisis.

The Opening Sky is a book about consequences, and the terrifying telescoping sense a person has of one's place in the world. Is it noble or arrogant to suppose any one person's actions matter so much? Where is the space for wonder in a life with all the answers? What is the right way to be a moral person – to be authentic, to be pure – in the 21st century?

Thomas is the celebrated author of two historical novels, Reading by Lightning and Curiosity, and while The Opening Sky is a departure in being contemporary, the novel is as rich in detail and atmosphere as the others. Characters and story are charged with remarkable specificity. Thomas has a particular talent for dialogue revealing the intimacy between characters .

Both in her Winnipeg setting and depiction of a complex family relationships, she channels the spirit of Carol Shields, who, after all, once wrote a novel called Happenstance – a notion Thomas's characters are prone to ponder.

Although there is too much pondering – a tighter edit would have given the novel more momentum. The book also falters with an extraneous plot point placed at its forefront that detracts from the central story.

That central story, however, is compelling. It's an age-old tale – accidental pregnancy; family at the point of crisis – but one made fresh through Thomas's evocative prose and the uncanny uniqueness of her lens.

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