It was a common practice among 19th-century women novelists to dispense with the impediment of mothers. This absence of maternal guidance and supervision allowed their heroines just enough leeway to direct their own courses in life - which in the case of Jane Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke was a decidedly mixed blessing.
Lemon, the eponymous heroine of the latest novel by Cordelia Strube ( Alex & Zee, The Barking Dog), possesses a surfeit of maternal figures: a birth mother she has never met, an adoptive mother and a surrogate stepmother. Harsh encounters with a violent, exploitative, patriarchal society have left all three women psychologically battered, and left Lemon, a cynical high school senior, to act as caregiver. In this upside-down contemporary world, parents and children have swapped roles.
Not surprisingly, Lemon has a bad feeling about the planet and a bad attitude to match. To avoid suspension from school, she has agreed to meet regularly with a school guidance counsellor who professes faith in her academic abilities. Even so, Lemon's passion for history and classic literature only serves to reinforce her negative views. She is beset by thoughts of past and present evils, which she counts off like beads on a rosary: child labour, child slavery, Jim Crow, the Holocaust. She shares opinions on war, the Middle East, genocide, African diamond mines. And that's not all. Not nearly.
What troubles Lemon most is the hyper-sexualization of young women, the sex and violence she witnesses in her immediate environment. She lives in Toronto with Drew, her father's ex-girlfriend, who is also the principal of her school. A crazed student stabbed Drew in the back with a letter opener, and now she is afraid to go outside.
Lemon's adoptive mother is also mentally ill. She suffered a nervous breakdown after her husband abandoned the family. Lemon despises her father for his all-round lack of respect toward women. He is just one of several men making Lemon's life difficult. A boy she works with at the ice-cream parlour spread a rumour that she is gay after she refused to sleep with him. Another boy is threatening to beat her senseless for humiliating him in front of his friends. The only sane man to come across her path is Drew's stepson, an environmentalist who shares Lemon's love of trees.
Lemon volunteers on the cancer ward of the children's hospital. There she reads to a sweet little girl named Kadylak who is undergoing chemotherapy. At night, Lemon dreams that she and Kadylak are running through a field of buttercups, a bucolic image that evokes Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. In that novel, Holden Caulfield, the alienated teenage hero, prevents children from falling into bleak and frightening adulthood. Lemon might be seen as a contemporary, female version of the Holden figure. The novels share many details of plot and theme, including the spectre of death.
For her part, Lemon desperately wishes for a brave and selfless mother to guide her through a violent patriarchal world. Even so, when an opportunity arises to meet her birth mother, Lemon can't decide what to do.
With Lemon, Strube also presents a self-consciously white perspective. She bravely - even controversially - depicts a subtly segregated teenage Toronto, although occasionally she gets in over her head. The reader detects a note of resentment, as when Lemon expresses doubts about post-secondary studies: "Sitting in a lecture hall with 300 Asians and Muslims, isn't going to excite [me]"
Lemon says she feels whites are getting what they deserve - whatever that means - for slavery and for exploiting African resources. What really makes her nuts, however, "is the slavery over there. Women and girls being owned by some psycho who cuts off their clitorises and rapes them." Apart from the fact that such horrendous crimes cannot honestly be compared to the scope and savagery of the Atlantic slave trade, Lemon's comment sounds slyly defensive. In any case, the novel stresses that all peoples are equally capable of evil, a truism that helps alleviate a measure of Lemon's guilt.
Some of Lemon's wisest observations concern violence: "Somebody should come up with an advertising campaign that makes killing a sign of weakness. A campaign that makes not killing sexy, that makes guns look like crutches for cowards who lack social skills. … Advertisers can make us do anything." This novel might be described as a long, agonizing howl against humanity - a soundtrack for Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, except that here and there some humour seeps through. Lemon's impersonation of her teachers, for instance: the ambidextrous French teacher who stands at the board conjugating verbs with his right hand and erasing with his left; the intellectually challenged guidance counsellor bubbling with perky bromides and "masticating" a steady supply of Ritz crackers.
Still, the sheer quantity of subjects Strube introduces, without pausing for breath, makes it tough going. Her treatment is brief and clichéd; there's a good deal of cheeky wit, but few adult readers will find Lemon's pronouncements particularly original.
One wishes Strube might have used her vast store of historical and literary facts as a means of informing Lemon's mental state. Instead she churns them out onto the page like Professor Gradgrind in Dickens's Hard Times.
Much preferred are moments when Strube allows herself to work through image and tacit emotion, as in this scene at the children's hospital when Kadylak's father appears: "He lifts her up and holds her to him, hard. They don't move. I can see her knuckles whitening where she's clinging to him. Both of them have their eyes closed tight, shutting out the pain."
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer, editor and critic.