Years ago, while visiting London to interview for a spot in the University of East Anglia’s creative writing program, novelist (and former Globe dance critic) Martha Schabas was approached by a man on the train, who struck up a conversation with her. Why was she, a young Canadian woman, in London? Schabas explained her desire to move there for the MA program, along with the very real concerns of how to afford such a thing. On the spot, the man offered her a deal: He would pay for tuition and cover all her financial needs in London, in exchange for the rights and royalties to her first book. He gave her his card.
Schabas did not take him up on his proposal, but she carried it with her, a good cocktail party story, she imagined. She got her MA from East Anglia and published her first novel, Various Positions, in 2011. For years, the man’s offer lingered in her imagination. “What could’ve possibly been going on in his mind?” Schabas wonders over Zoom on a recent sunny March morning. “Over time, I started to play out different scenarios. I was really curious about how I could make this man’s offer be in good faith.”
Fiction proved to be the best place to test out an agreement and its outcomes. In Schabas’s new novel, My Face in the Light (Knopf), a version of that proposal is offered and accepted by the character of Justine Weiss, a 29-year-old stage actor from Toronto who is ostensibly in London to audition for a prestigious Shakespeare apprenticeship. She walks out of her audition mid-speech.
Max Haleemi, an elegant if inscrutable older businessman, approaches her on a bus and, after a brief, disarming conversation, offers her a flat in London, with the caveat that there will be a job for her to do if she takes it. Justine does not ask what the job is, but she takes his card anyway. Returning home to Toronto where she lives with her husband, Elias, Justine privately fixates on Haleemi’s offer, even in the absence of the apprenticeship that would be her reason for going. “I could decide to trust Max Haleemi,” she tells herself. “I could decide to believe that there was no gap between the person he seemed to be and the person he was.” She lies to her husband – lies upon lies – and returns to London, drawn more by Haleemi’s omissions than his promises.
Justine is an attractively cryptic figure to follow through Schabas’s gracefully paced second novel. Brought up under the weight of her mother Rachel’s resolute certainty as an artist, Justine discovers early that she is an actor, able to mirror and mimic the people they observe on their walks around Camden Town. In vivid flashbacks, Justine embodies the women they see while interpreting text, Shakespeare in particular, as Rachel paints her. Acting becomes her career as if she is stepping from one conveyor belt to another: it is simply where her life has taken her, and she sees little art or love in it. “I’m convinced that what others see as talent is actually a very boring tendency toward total concentration,” she says of her intangible gifts.
“Justine was this notion of a young woman who’s been raised by someone who has one truth,” Schabas tells me. “She’s a good actor because she’s a mimic, she can turn something on. So she grows up feeling like a foil to her mother’s intense fixation on meaningfulness.” As Schabas puts it, Justine finds herself living delicately within a “scaffolding of lies” – ones more about avoiding truth than seeding deception.
Throughout all this, Justine bears a scar on her forehead from childhood; it signifies “the first of other walls to materialize out of nowhere and do me tangible harm.” The scar and its etiology are the guiding wound of the novel, a constant presence in Justine’s life. She overidentifies with it at times, shrinking behind it as if it were a mask. To Schabas, the scar is “a kind of symbolic embellishment of that idea of something that we perceive as huge and that the rest of the world might not.”
The problem of perception follows Justine throughout the novel, her gaze both enhanced and compromised by her now more-or-less estranged mother’s impulse toward spontaneous mise-en-scène. Justine filters much of what she sees in London through the lens of art and memory. At a bar, she notes that “girls were scattered at perches and tables across the room, lending the effect of a Renaissance painting.” Later, she identifies a man “with a long, gaunt face. Bloodless and melancholic, the kind of face you see hovering in the background of early religious paintings.” It is a poignant method for Schabas to show how Justine carries her mother with her, no matter how hard she has tried to sever their connection.
“When I started writing this book, I had just finished my master’s in English lit at Queen’s University. I took a course on Alice Munro and just read all of her stories and I was just so fascinated by her exploration of the matrilineal line – the richness and the pain that can come with mothers and daughters.”
The Munro works that more definitively influenced My Face in the Light, Schabas adds, were the three connected stories Chance, Soon and Silence from the anthology Runaway. “I was completely haunted by them – their portrayal of a mother and daughter relationship so fraught with tragedy and abandonment, but so intimate, too. And how achingly they depict the full trajectory of the mother’s life, from a grad student full of ambition and desire to a middle-aged mom in conflicted grief.”
My Face in the Light is all of these things: a novel about daughters, mothers, scars, art, performance, sincerity and what it means to try to live in the light, however frightening that may be.
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