Where did Arley McNeney come from? I used to think I was fairly up-to-date with Canada's finest writers, but I have been proved wrong. McNeney, with her second (second?!) novel, The Time We All Went Marching, is one of the best writers I have stumbled across – Canadian or otherwise – in years.
McNeney's first novel, Post, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Best First Novel, Canada and the Caribbean. McNeney is not only a writer but also an athlete; she has won medals (gold at the 2002 and 2006 World Championships) as a member of Canada's women's wheelchair basketball team.
All of this isn't really important in reviewing her newest creation. But it might make you see that McNeney is a writer who excels at her craft and her sport. She is no one-hit wonder.
The Time We All Went Marching is a terrible title, but only because I can never remember it in order to recommend it to friends. This is the only thing bad I will say about this book. It is a small, beautiful book filled with large themes.
Edie and Slim and their four-year-old son, Belly, are a mess. The plot begins with Edie escaping her pipe-burst apartment, leaving alcoholic Slim passed out in the frigid, ice-covered room. Edie and Belly slide out the door and catch the train to New Westminster, B.C., her childhood home. While on the train, Edie tells Belly the stories Slim has told her – about Slim's mining life and also about his "On To Ottawa Trek" where, in 1935, thousands of unemployed men protested against the dismal conditions in federal relief camps by participating in a cross-country march toward Ottawa and prime minister R.B. Bennett. The trek ended with a famous riot in Regina.
Edie's stories are both fiction and fact; they are made up of what she imagines Slim's life to be and also what she wants to believe. Her stories have the feel of the train, a chugging, rocking rhythm: "The train's movement thrums beneath her fingertips and she cannot help but picture her husband the way she likes to remember him: the wind reddening his cheeks and fraying the cuffs of his jacket as he rides on top of the boxcar in 1935. The On to Ottawa Trek. The slogans painted with shoe polish on a boy's good sweater. The men snake-dancing from side to side down the road with arms linked so they would resemble a river when viewed from above."
Edie imagines the men on the march, carving figures out of soap, bathing in rivers and streams: "Tomorrow Matt Shaw will bathe up for his big day and the river will smooth the figure's features away, will melt the scent into his hair, until the carving could be anyone, and then will be no one, an oily sheen on the river's current." The writing is lyrical, vivid and poetic.
The novel turns quickly when Belly is injured. The train is forced to stop in a small, snow-buried town and the passengers made to disembark and spend the night. Belly and Edie share a room with strange characters, Vivian and her daughter, Sadie. The day and night spent there become a nightmare, everything bathed in an eerie setting, the soldiers dancing drunkenly downstairs with prostitutes, the train passengers making snow angels. Edie thinks, "Saw grown people cavorting in the snow with their clothes wet against their bodies and their laughter stretched weird in the wind, the mirrors on the ceilings reflecting past memories and Belly, feverish and infected, leaking pus, playing horse and airplane with a vengeance."
McNeney layers Slim's stories upon Edie's forward-moving plot with great care. Each new story is introduced by a title, so that the novel reads as chunks of time. Edie's past, her parents' lives, her romance with a prisoner in a graveyard, the just-finished war, injured soldiers, Slim's adventures, the Regina riot, his drunkenness – everything is carefully drawn and meticulously detailed.
This novel is a stunning achievement. It has the feel of a Michael Ondaatje novel, the same breathtaking language and image, a dream-like quality to the scenes. I may accidentally forget the title of this book, but I will never forget the name Arley McNeney.
Michelle Berry is the author of four novels and three story collections. She is currently teaching creative writing online for the University of Toronto/New York Times.