It is an ordinary, sunny day on a Nova Scotia beach.
Damian, a 20-year-old, dozes on a rock while his sister, Lisa, takes their all-terrain vehicle for a ride. But she turns too sharply on an embankment and the vehicle careens down a sharp hill. Lisa, trapped beneath the vehicle, drowns in a tiny stream of water.
So begins Falling, the profound and sharply observed novel by Anne Simpson, author of the novel Canterbury Beach and several poetry collections, including Loop, which recently won the prestigious Griffin Prize.
- Falling, by Anne Simpson, McClelland & Stewart, 318 pages, $32.99
The tragedy takes only a moment: Lisa is alive for less than a page. The book isn't about her death, or her personality (in fact, Lisa often feels vague, an amorphous spot of sorrow). Instead, like See the Child, by David Bergen, or Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, this novel is about family members struggling to put their lives together after a calamity rips them to pieces.
Simpson has the poet's art of paying close attention to details, which take on added fierceness and luminosity because they are part of the record of grief. For instance, as the ambulance speeds Damian and his already-dead sister toward the hospital, Damian sees everything through the window "as though he were looking through binoculars." The marmalade-coloured cat, the fields of corn with their silky tassels, the woman putting out laundry - all these bits of life become magnified. Under Simpson's deft handling, ordinary life in the wake of tragedy feels both acute and strangely remote - because ordinary life is so utterly oblivious to personal misfortune.
Though the story begins in Nova Scotia, most of it takes place in Niagara Falls, Ont., where Ingrid and Damian - mother and brother - travel to scatter Lisa's ashes. There they stay in Ingrid's childhood home and reconnect with Roger, Ingrid's brother (a daredevil who has gone over the falls twice in a barrel) and his mentally disabled son, Elvis.
All of these family members take a while to emerge fully (their grief seems to wash them out of focus). But as the book progresses, they come to life vividly, particularly Damian, who emerges as sweet and tortured. Scarcely out of his teens, he is ill-equipped for the sudden burden of tragedy. He is also beautiful to look at, with long blond hair "like Leif Ericsson." One character ponders that "much would be forgiven this boy because of his beauty." Ingrid, the mother, a seemingly rigid woman with a relentless talent for pushing away those closest to her, nevertheless has a few wild cards up her sleeve (not entirely unlike her daredevil brother, Roger). Still, she is soon in combat with her brother, whose attitude toward life is so seemingly at odds with her own.
Things heat up further with the entrance of Jasmine, a very pretty 19-year-old from Saskatchewan, with whom Damian falls in love. She is a genuinely good person with "a wide-open heart," as one of the characters tells her, and we watch with growing foreboding as Ingrid and Damian heap her with their grief-stricken longings and needs. She is close to Lisa's age, and she shares the dead girl's hazel-to-green eyes. With the constant rushing of the falls in the background, an ominous feeling grows that something out of control will happen.
As Damian and Ingrid start to unravel, the story becomes like a rush toward the waterfall, and the tension is increased by the interesting structure, where the chapters, previously unnumbered, become, mid-book, a backward countdown: 10, 9, 8 ... To enhance the feeling of falling, Simpson removes punctuation and paragraphing from this section, a device that sounds like it might not work, but which actually flows organically from the story and ramps up the tension brilliantly.
And throughout the book, like a character in itself, there is the constant roar of Niagara Falls, tinting the story with its sound, giving it a green, underwater feel. From the trickle of a stream in which Lisa drowns, to the vast outpouring over the waterfall, to the tears that the mother, Ingrid, cannot stop shedding, water in all its forms is intensely and beautifully described. This movement of water - especially over Niagara Falls and out to sea - is Simpson's metaphor (we begin to realize, but not too soon) for the headlong rush of life itself. And this gives Falling an added sense of mystery and profundity.
This is particularly true because the novel, with its nuanced rendering of time, is itself like a river. From the startling description of a moth to the sound of children calling to each other in an outdoor pool, Simpson makes the reader feel the passing moments, the strands of time. And so, by increments, like any good requiem, Anne Simpson's song swings toward the universal; we realize we are mourning for all of us, as well as for Lisa, and for the poignant finality of life itself.
But this is done subtly. For the most part, the novel's power comes from living and breathing Ingrid's and Damian's lives - post-Lisa - as they struggle to emerge from their underwater chambers of grief. And we see, with increasing admiration and wonder, the forces they are able draw on, as they tumble through the waterfall, in order to survive.
Shaena Lambert is the author of two books of fiction, Radiance and The Falling Woman. She lives in Vancouver.