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  • Title: Broke City
  • Author: Wendy McGrath
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: NeWest Press

Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa trilogy, published by NeWest Press:

  • Santa Rosa (2011, 128 pages)
  • North East (2014, 126 pages)
  • Broke City (2019, 128 pages)

Even among recent novelistic portraits of the artist as a young woman (Eileen Myles’s The inferno comes to mind, as do Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot), Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa trilogy feels radical.

It has to do with voice, which is about character. McGrath’s heroine, Christine, is just literate in the first book (“She was learning to read and learning to write. An ! meant excited”) but precocious in her creative sensibility, navigating her parents’ crumbling marriage in 1960s working-class Edmonton.

I loved the first two books in the trilogy, which at fewer than 130 pages each are gemlike in their size and the way they refract images through the consciousness of this child. These same qualities made them difficult to talk about in a review, however, beyond their strange, mesmerizing narrative style and the sense they were developing towards something on the horizon. As a result, the Santa Rosa trilogy and McGrath as a writer likely haven’t gotten their due.

Now with the trilogy’s conclusion, Broke City, published this September, it’s time to fill that critical gap. McGrath makes it look effortless (you could read all three books in a day), but this is a complex work about a series of hauntings. A family haunts a house, a neighbourhood haunts a city, a young girl “with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world” haunts the woman she becomes.

The first book, Santa Rosa, opens with adult Christine, pregnant. She craves the taste of dirt, “her sense of smell of taste of touch was keener than it had ever been.” The writing is impressionistic and sensuous, in keeping with Christine’s heightened perceptions.

The first chapter then shifts to a more conventional prose style offset by a surprising simile: “The bathroom of the house was like the inside of a camera.” The bulk of the trilogy is like this, full of unexpected comparisons and jumps in thought; we are now with a much younger Christine. Here she is at a luncheonette: “Red and white tile floors like teeth or piano keys from a piano and the keys could be any colour she chose. The music would be hers and would taste the colour of the keys. The sound: the colour. Would red keys really make the music sound different? She could taste each letter their sound their music.”

One of the ghosts of this trilogy is the Santa Rosa neighbourhood in northeast Edmonton where the novels are set. You won’t find Santa Rosa on an Edmonton map today, because nearby Montrose engulfed it in the 1980s. Part of the fascination of these books is how McGrath revivifies the now-lost Santa Rosa, which is distinctly working-class. With the father’s work in construction, Christine’s family is a step above the rural poverty Christine’s mother grew up in. They have a house and a car, but at the end of some weeks the kitchen cupboards are empty, and Christine’s world is marked by local stinks: the meat-packing plants, the plastic factory, the city dump.

There’s tension in the house between Christine’s parents. This story of marital decline is the closest thing to a linear narrative in the books. We don’t read straight down this line, however, instead swirling around images that hold young Christine’s attention, like knives or the colour red, with all the associations these accrue through Christine’s synaesthetic melding of senses. In these novels about Christine’s development as visual artist and writer, these images hold equal weight as a plot point about a spat between spouses at the beach.

In the recently released Broke City, the central image is a pine tree, which comes to represent an artistic crisis of communication. Already, in North East, Christine realized her parents are essentially strangers to her: “she didn’t know them and they didn’t know each other and the girl felt alone even though they were in the same car and all going to her grandmother’s house.” How can the artist be sure she has gotten through to another person when even those closest to us are unknowable? While her mother scrubs the floor, seven-year-old Christine wonders how people could talk if they didn’t have words.

“Mom, see that picture of a pine tree? If I just showed you the picture would you know what I meant?” Christine asks.

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about half the time,” her mother replies. “You think about things too much. It’s just a bottle of Pine-Sol.”

Even though it’s child Christine whose perceptions shape this story, she’s not the one who tells it. Instead, we are in very close third-person. This narrator that is almost Christine but not this child has been a puzzle for most of the trilogy – where is that voice coming from? It’s when Broke City zooms out, back to the frame that opened Santa Rosa, that everything snaps into place.

Her family, Santa Rosa, even her child self are like ghosts to Christine now: “This was the place she had become herself. It had made her, whether she wanted to admit it or not. Santa Rosa would always be the invisible part of her. Just as Santa Rosa was invisible now.…Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now.”

I felt a pang as Christine invoked this last ghost, which says everything about McGrath’s skill in portraying this girl who has to fight for her artistic sensibility from a young age, in an often hostile environment, among people who don’t understand her. With her now-complete portrait of the artist as a young girl, McGrath proves why she’s a writer to pay attention to.

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