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John Bemrose in cottage country

Shaun Taylor

Set in Northern Ontario, The Last Woman takes place in the summer of 1986 as the province is suffering its way through a drought that drains the water from rivers and lakes. "New reefs have surfaced," the reader is told, "while in remote bays floating carpets of lily and arrowhead have given way to flats of dry mud."

This is roughly the same neck of the woods to which Bemrose took us with his debut novel, the Giller-nominated and widely acclaimed The Island Walkers. And once again, he's writing with poise and authority about a landscape he knows intimately. This time, it's Lake Nigushiu, "a place where people come to escape change, to enjoy the same kind of summers they and their parents knew in their youth."

The main characters are a married couple, Ann Scott and Richard Galuta. She's an artist, a painter with depressive tendencies, passionate and moody, not quite as successful as she once imagined she would be; Richard is a lawyer, financially secure, boorish and also bored, angling for a political career, someone who, as Ann puts it, "sucks the oxygen out of the room."

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The couple form the base of a love triangle that has as at its apex Billy Johnson, an Ojibwa man who, when they were both teenagers, was Ann's lover. The novel begins as Billy is returning home after 10 years of drifting aimlessly through the United States, a flight prompted by the loss of a land-claims case that he, with the help of Richard, brought against the provincial government. Billy was chief at the time; Richard was the lawyer who assembled the case. Ann was the glue that held the whole thing together. "Triangles were supposed to be unstable," she recalls, but "it seemed theirs was the exception: a balance of friendship and, yes, she would say it, love, where jealousy had little part." When they lost the case, Billy blamed Richard and disappeared.

Billy's arrival brings back the whole messy business. It's Ann who sees him first, and when she tells Richard, Bemrose signals the impending turmoil with the narrative equivalent of swelling violins. "There is something daunting in her elation," Richard thinks to himself, "the sense of a demand he cannot fulfill." And so it goes. Once he's set these romantic wheels in motion, Bemrose lets the machinery of this familiar plot click along with readable, somewhat predictable efficiency. If there's any suspense here, it's of the same sort we feel reading Pride and Prejudice, wondering if there's any hope that Elizabeth Bennett can find her way back to Mr. Darcy. Though it should be remarked that hardly anyone puts down a Jane Austen novel because she guesses where it's going.

The novel shifts from its lyrical depiction of the Ontario landscape to surreal nightmare

A more complex character is Billy, Bemrose's route to the plight of the native people in the area. The butchery of the landscape that has taken place in Billy's absence is astounding. At one point, he goes to see a clear-cut not far from his home. "Before him, now, lies a desert," the reader is told, "… an empty plain, speckled with stumps, stretching towards the horizon."

Also striking is Billy's engagement with a community struggling with addiction and poverty. Soon after his return, he sees local boys sniffing gas out of plastic bags, and the novel shifts from its lyrical depiction of the Ontario landscape to surreal nightmare. "Plastic bags," we read, "scores of bags, caught in bushes, strewn along the ground." Billy tries to talk to the kids, with mixed results.

"The boy does not respond, but stares in a neutral direction, off the path," but Billy watches him, and we're struck by the skill with which Bemrose sustains the ambivalence of the moment, allowing the plights of both Billy and the boy to emerge: "Billy has a sense of angry dismissal. But there is something else here too: a kind of patient endurance, terribly familiar. It's as if all his people are here, waiting as they have always waited."

Near the end of the novel, Ann produces a striking work of art, a painting of a "large, naked, completely red woman." It's this painting - the last woman - to which the title of the novel alludes. The woman's anguished mouth is open and her hair flies out behind her to reveal "an interweaving of tiny trees and animals, a river like a flowing ribbon." Beneath her there is a crowd of workmen, tiny figures who seem intent on taking her apart. "Several men in hard hats, suspended by cables, are attacking her thigh," we're told. "Using chainsaws they have cut away a huge block of flesh, which now hangs by a thread of skin. The wound beneath is as clearly defined as a swimming pool."

The power of the painting derives from its ability to show us both the fierce majesty of the woman at its centre and the workmanlike violence wrought on her by the little men who seek to dismantle her. It's also a window into the novel itself, a condensed version of the political and historical - the human - complexity being rendered there. It is a measure of Bemrose's art, of his particular and tragic vision of Ontario, that this insight comes just a little too late, and that it comes in the form of a painting rather than a legal decision.

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Steven Hayward divides his time between Toronto and Colorado Springs, where he teaches at the Colorado College. His new novel, Don't Be Afraid, is due out next September.

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