Two pages into Fran Kimmel's The Shore Girl, the narrating inner voice of young Rebee Shore clicked for me. She's toddler-age, a bewildered kid alone on a bed while flimsy motel walls transmit sounds of vigorous sex. To Rebee, the noise is an unnerving "party," one among many unknowns including the absence of her mother and the rule that she's "not sposint to get off the bed." There are comforting childhood things (star-speckled PJ's, a plush bunny toy) but the stained carpet stinks and bunny is exiled to the closet.
Enter Elizabeth, a.k.a. Mommy, her face marred by tears and blood. Hurried packing ensues, then an escape in a battered van. We can guess enough of what's afoot, the child's mind a conduit for our jaded adult understanding. Then we shift to the smokes-and-booze inflections of Elizabeth's sister, Aunt Vic, babysitting Rebee while mom takes off for one of her extended tumbles into dissolution. In Kimmel's hands there's a subtle comedic vibe to Vic's wry observations and her punchy dialogue with boyfriend Eddy. They even have near-idyllic moments hiking the trails near Eddy's outback Alberta shack. Still, lurking always are painful memories of Vic's "miserable old" father, a circuit judge.
Vic's forgetting drug is vodka. After putting away most of a bottle one night in the woods, she staggers into the house to overhear Eddy and Rebee in the bathroom: splashing noises, Rebee saying "it hurts." Later, Vic clamps Rebee's arms and shakes her, questioning the girl about what happened. The rough, panicky interrogation, abusive in itself, forces some shouted words from Rebee, but by scene's end both we and Vic remain unclear as to what occurred. There follows a scene in which Eddy spits an indignant, seemingly convincing defence. Regardless of what has happened, the child has been wronged. Rebee's helplessness against adult blunders and evasions is keenly evoked.
Fast-forward to the inner world of Rebee's Grade 2 schoolteacher. Belinda is a hygiene-obsessed wingnut who emotionally stalks Rebee's mother (now calling herself Harmony). Unaccountably, the 40-page chapter virtually abandons Rebee's development, constructing an elaborate detour into a character who never reappears. Rebee's narrating return is a three-page snapshot of nomadic life in rented rooms and her mom's battered van.
Then comes the voice of Jake, who is grappling with a missing brother and his own painful recuperation from an oil-rig accident. One day, he finds a down-and-out mother and daughter camped by his old fishing hole: Rebee and Harmony. They are living in the van, washing their socks and undies in the nearby stream. Jake's 30 pages have the structure and integrity of a good short story. You feel and scent the broken world he's groping around in and the tender project that Rebee and Harmony inspire in him.
Giving them a life is meant to be his redemption, but he hasn't the tools to fix them. The fizzling of his hopeful vision is touchingly rendered. Kimmel constructs each new character around the pivot of Rebee. She is the hub of the book, but beyond the first two chapters she becomes largely lost in the episodic swirl. In a brief return, she describes her hospitalization from a bout of pneumonia. As her mother and aunt skirmish over the bed, nurses fuss and social workers probe.
Joey, an adolescent neighbour of Harmony's father, narrates the closing 50 pages, chased by a brief coda from Rebee. Like Jake, Joey is a fully formed, uniquely voiced character whose life happens to intersect with Rebee's. Through him, Kimmel gathers together her story strands into a final, loosely bound skein revealing family secrets and offering some narrative closure.
The Shore Girl is like a film that soars on a brilliant supporting cast, the script a vehicle that carries but never transports the action. Twice nominated for the Journey Prize for short fiction, Fran Kimmel fully confirms her gift for arresting character work and small canvases; but the novel, as a whole, pales against its vivid parts.
Jim Bartley is a Toronto novelist and playwright.