What a wordsmith! What a work of depth and breadth! What a world newcomer Cathy Marie Buchanan brings to propulsively glittering and gorgeous life in The Day the Falls Stood Still.
Few first novels exhibit the mastery, maturity and majesty of Buchanan's riveting fictional debut, a heart-wrenching, soul-racking, spell-binding tale interwoven with guts, anguish and glory guaranteed to remain in readers' minds long after they've crossed its devastating finish line.
Commencing in 1915, in this gripping storyteller's hometown of Niagara Falls, against the backdrop of the full-force arrival of hydroelectricity and the First World War, this almost entirely first-person narrative relates the saga of 17-year-old Bess Heath, the youngest daughter of a once well-heeled family down on its luck.
Father, fired from his prestigious position with the Niagara Power Company, turns to drink while Mother, after collecting Bess from Toronto's Loretto College, returns to dressmaking, harbouring a passion that provides the pauperized Heaths with enough income to survive (even as elder sister Isabel inexorably sinks into a depressed abyss of anorectic proportions).
Upon her homecoming one evening, Bess encounters the rough yet robust riverman Tom Cole, grandson of the legendary Fergus (with his shamanistic legacy). Her family, dead-set against the pairing, throws objections and obstacles in their star-crossed paths. Bess yields to her parents' wishes … to a point. When her universe spins out of control, not unlike the day the Falls stand still, she must choose between her consuming love for the riverman capable of reading the Niagara's rhythms to an almost supranormal degree or marrying into respectability to redeem her impoverished and dysfunctional, yet close-knit, clan.
Tom lives for the Niagara as much as he lives off what it returns in terms of his confounding ability to read and wisely reap its bountiful rewards. His daring rescue feats render him a local hero, diametrically opposed to the greedily rapacious power companies hell-bent on harnessing the cascade and harvesting obscene profits at the expense of its delicately balanced ecosystem.
Set during that tumultuous time when daredevils shot river rapids in barrels and fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared (until Tom retrieved their corpses), The Day the Falls Stood Still may be compared with the writings of Lorrie Moore, William Trevor or Bernice Friesen (with the additional charge of Alice Munro's meticulously drawn characters or the heartbreakingly ethical conundrums of the work of David Adams Richards, say):
"I watch him, filling with wonder. I have heard Father argue that intuition is entirely rational. There is no mystery, no magic, nothing astonishing as far as he is concerned. A woman knows her child is ill, even before laying her palm on his forehead, only because he slept late and called out in the night and ate poorly the evening before. It does not matter one iota that she cannot articulate the clues. Father would say, 'We do not always know what we know.'"
True? What do readers know - nay, rediscover - upon entering the whirlpool, the swirling vortex at the eddying edges of The Day the Falls Stood Still with its eyes of a child, ears of an adult, heart of a wizened elder and soul of a resurrected secular saint? Whether they call this keeper Historical Romance, ChickLit or FemFic, they cannot but likewise call it one uncompromising tour-de-fierce in its dazzling brilliance they will neither regret nor forget. On this, any wise gambler would do well to place one winning horseshoe bet.
Contributing reviewer Judith Fitzgerald lives in the Almaguin Highlands and regularly blogs for In Other Words. The award-winning poet, editor and cultural critic's 30th work, Rogue Lightning, is slated for release next year.