Heave By Christy Ann Conlin Doubleday Canada, 322 pages, $29.95
The sad fact is that some people don't read past the first few sentences of a book review. So I want to tell you right from the start that Christy Ann Conlin's first novel, Heave, is simply a marvellous book. With the same loving attention to the East Coast of Canada as that of novelists Ann-Marie MacDonald and Lynn Coady, Conlin weaves a tale both tragic and uplifting. She captures the flavour of life growing up in a town where everybody knows everything, every mistake you might make. And where these mistakes follow you to the grave. But this is also a town that will forgive you those mistakes, even if they don't let you forget.
Heave begins when 21-year-old Seraphina (Serrie) Sullivan finally takes the advice of her good friend, Dearie, who always said, "Go tits to the wind." Serrie rushes out of the church and away from her wedding, high-heeled shoes digging into her feet, her dress ripping on the heavy oak door. She is leaving her groom at the altar. The reader is then whirled deliriously into what came before this moment -- into Serrie's drunken teenage life, into her blackouts and overwhelming addiction, into a failed university career, into a three-week, drug-induced hell in England, into an overdose at a strip club and then into a month in a boot-camp/rehab hospital in Foster, N.S. The story propels you along, taking you on dips and bends that are as dangerous as the twisting road down Moonrise Hill.
The writing is fine, smooth and tight. This is an honest tale of family love and hate. There is Serrie's father, Cyril, who collects outhouses; her brother, Percy, who tries to make sense of the past as long as it's not his history he's thinking about; her mother, Martha, whose nervous breakdown has her muttering, "Responsibilities come and your dreams slip a bit farther away and you can't see them as clearly but you think of them like the seasons, you always remember the seasons"; and the matriarch, Grammie, who holds the entire family together.
It is the death of the much-beloved Grammie, her voice echoing in everything Serrie does, that finally cements Serrie to her home, giving her the realization that this is where she belongs. With family. As her brother sings, "When I am far away on the briny ocean tossed/ Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?"
Conlin presents the reader with a world that is familiar and detailed. This is a believable family caught in the grasp of history, in the grasp of the government, the culture, the landscape. But for all the sadness and misery, the characters in this novel hang on to the bonds of the family -- the shared history of drink or of sober thought, of poverty and struggle, and finally of the tenderness of birth and death, of a heartbreaking love for their people.
Conlin's style is precise, the intensity often startling. She writes with a truthfulness that is passionate. A Christmas dinner turns into a tragic farce. When Serrie, sitting at the kid's table, mentions she's reading Aldous Huxley, Grammie shouts out, " 'I don't want to hear that name at the Christmas dinner table again. Your grandfather had Jewish blood, you know, and so do you. . . . Where the hell are you anyway? Where's my one and only granddaughter?' 'Huxley,' I scream. 'Hux-ley, not Hitler. I'm over here at the TV table.' She turns her head around, my Grammie the Owl. 'Oh, I see,' Grammie says. 'Now who in the name of God put you over there?' "
A stint at the Weeping Willows Treatment Centre becomes a world of uncontrollable angst: "It's the first night and I've got insomnia coming out of my pores, lying in the bed trembling."
Heave ends with promise and hope. But it also ends with a loss. Christy Ann Conlin's Nova Scotia embodies both of those things at all times. There is always optimism for the future and a sad reminiscence for the past. The struggle seems to happen in the middle somewhere. In the here and now. Heave is a powerful book. It's hard to believe this author is just beginning. I can't wait to see what she accomplishes next. Michelle Berry's second novel, Blur , will be published this spring.