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The Daily Review, Fri., Mar. 26

Same old song Add to ...

Given the assiduous earnestness and quasi-veracity of Sault Ste. Marie's Sarah Felix Burns's attempt to translate indigenous cultural experience in her second novel, Song Over Quiet Lake - following last year's Northern-Ontario Lit Award-winning Jackfish - she raises more questions than she answers, primarily because her dominant narrators, for all their courageous quirkiness and outrageous flamboyancy, never move beyond one-dimensional circles of isolated influence. Put bluntly? Cathy Marie Buchanan ( The Day the Falls Stood Still) or Bernice Friesen ( The Book of Beasts), Burns ain't.

Two students - octogenarian Tlingit elder Lydie Jim and twenty-something Sylvia - become fast friends during their years at the University of British Columbia earning women's studies degrees. The former, a wise and wonderfully feisty character's character (from a quickly disappearing matrilineal Yukon tribe), takes it upon herself to re-animate or resurrect Sylvia's heart, soul and spirit, particularly since the cynical "Goth" girl comes across as a walking-wounded dame, devastated by a past action so heinous and horrific that her mother disowns her. Not an easy burden to bear or a pill to swallow. But Sylvia decides she will reinvent herself by refusing to wallow in the limelight (despite the fact she does exactly that):

"Help? You think I need help? What about a freaking lunatic who hunts little children? … Is that screwed up enough for you?! But you know what? You're right after all … You know who is the most screwed up? It's this stupid bitch. … How do you like that one?! Some stupid, idiot, little asshole worthless, brainless bitch who left her little brother all alone outside …"

If only she'd made the effort to learn the difference between homage and hokum

Sadly, the defining moment at the centre of Song Over Quiet Lake, echoing in down-pat parallel reckonings consuming this multi-narrator saga, will most assuredly fail to elicit either pathos or empathy in readers confronted with one in-your-face, self-absorbed loser who believes herself above (or beyond) it all.

Shabbily edited and awkwardly presented, the work's 37 voice-over entries feature various angles on Sylvia's "story." There's the principled priest, Father MacAvoy, the guy who "could never even think of touching Lydie in that way"; the perfectly brainy arm-candy, River, stuck in his postmodern rut-race; the kindred sister studying pathology in Toronto; and, of course, the absconding father offset by the equally vacant mother, gone missing, inevitably drowning in vices while Lydie's surviving children, tattooed Jonah and Mitchell, prove their rebels-without-applause stripes by amping up their shenanigans, winding down in jails or, alternatively, in the arms of white babes wearing too much scent and too few decent threads.

Guess which man Sylvia's left to marry? Right. Cue the chorus: No sense revealing the big event's romantic hosannas. Too bad, really. Too bad for readers, too bad for the diminishing culture Burns wishes to celebrate and, most distressingly, too bad for the talent the author obviously possesses. If only she'd made the effort to learn the difference between homage and hokum, between narrative and chronological time; or how to do fair justice to Lydie Jim, the novel's heroine who, irrespective of the fact she earned that UBC degree, speaks uneducated English guaranteed to cause even the most forgiving of readers to cringe:

"Good day, Lydie Jim, Professor Gooch says. Happy morning I tell him and we chat about the sunshine and springtime. A couple more students show up - the smart ones or the ones really into history. Professor Gooch is disappointed that only five people wanted to come on his end-of-class field trip but he said, that's okay, it more fun with a smaller group. He teach Canadian history but his special area, he always tell us, is in war history. He a tall fat man with hardly any hair and a big red face …"

'Nuff said.

Contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is completing her 30th work, a poetry collection provisionally titled Rogue Lightning, slated for release later this year.

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