Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clara Callan

Once a novel has won a slew of awards, there's a expectation that follows it, one of excellence or beauty or perfection. Sometimes, novels live up to that expectation, or exceed it, becoming a masterpiece. Some novels don't quite meet the expectation. Franzen's Freedom, no doubt, will forever suffer for the hype attached to it. Another novel that seems to fit this bill is Richard B Wright's Clara Callan.

In 1936, Clara Callan, single schoolteacher, bids farewell to her ambitious sister Nora, who has left their rural Ontario village for New York, where she will follow her dreams in being a radio actress. What follows for the two sisters, the years leading up to World War Two, is a time of change and tragedy and love, all delivered in letters between them.

If I could sum up the Canadian literary identity, it would be an obsession with Toronto and the differences between the metropolitan and the rural, which is apparently the bee's knees for all these Canadian literary heavyweights. Clara Callan fits this bill perfectly. We even get two characters personifying the cultural differences, and the decline in the village as the rural character becomes more gentrified and cultured.

Clara Callan is a subtle novel where the reader is forced to read between the lines... some of the time. The basic idea of the book is to compare and contrast two sides of the same coin, two women, one who takes a chance and one who doesn't, and how that dynamic changes. The repressed emotions of the rural Clara Callan bubble to the surface and explodes when she finally tastes the forbidden fruit.

This is an imminently readable novel. The 400 odd pages just flew by for me. Wright does an amazing job of sustaining the different voices through letters, maintaining their individual voice and idiosyncrasies. It's a deft and subtle skill.

What doesn't quite fly is the often transparency of what Wright is trying to convey. One of the central images for Clara is of a homely English woman living a life of romance in Italy. It's painfully obvious to the reader what this is to signify, and then later, Clara all but admits what it means.

On the other hand, Wright performs an amazing feat with the backdrop of history. Usually when novelists use historical events and have fictional characters comment on them, it has the feel of Forrest Gump - it's irritating and knowing, undermining the importance of the event. However, Wright never ever sinks to sentimentality when it comes to the years leading up to the war. Rather, every historical reference has this sense of foreboding, like a storm, just sitting on the horizon, getting closer. So instead of the reader feeling smug that they know what happens in the future, the reader feels powerless to stop everybody and warn them. It's a powerful accomplishment.

Clara Callan is a very quick, readable novel that has some depth to it. Unfortunately, the author's inability to be subtle with images and motifs detracts from the subtle use of repressed emotions and historical events. How can one novel be so good at one element and frustratingly simple in another? This is still an enjoyable novel, but maybe not worthy of such crazed accolades foisted upon its feet.

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