Toronto: Key Porter, c2008.
This first adult novel by YA author Gayle Friesen shows its antecedents. I enjoy Friesen's YA novels, notably Janey's Girl, which shares many of the issues focused on in The Valley. I so wanted to love this book -- I enjoy Friesen's writing, and the themes of religious questioning and family legacies held great interest. However, it seemed to me in the end to be a YA novel which outgrew its genesis.
It's the story of Gloria, a woman suffering from lengthy depression, who is returning to her family farm in BC after many years living away. She comes from a Mennonite community and at 17 had left the community and her faith, running away to Winnipeg with one of her best friends. Now she is returning, with her 15 yr old daughter Julia in tow. We're not exactly sure why they've decided to go back, and the details surrounding her departure in the first place are slowly meted out until we are finally able to reconstruct her childhood trauma and the cause of all her years of depression, just in time for a touching, sentimental conclusion.
Unfortunately, the story did not really catch me. The trauma which affects Gloria is extended over many years; nearly twenty, in fact. Would she really have let herself block out the events of her childhood for so long, when it was destroying her marriage and her ability to mother Julia, even while she was still speaking and visiting with her parents, and in close, constant contact with the friend with whom she had left BC? Perhaps, but it did take me out of the story somewhat, not sure I really believed it. Also, it is the events of Gloria's teenage years which are the meat of the story, not at all her life -- actual or emotional -- as an adult. Her daughter Julia is also a major character in her own right. There are many elements of the story which echo YA concerns. It's a search for Truth, a paean to the power of friendship, a struggle to find one's place within one's family and in the wider world, and an examination of faith and beliefs. There are also stylistic techniques which are strongly reminiscent of YA literature; slang, frequent pop culture references, descriptions of clothing and appearances.
Don't get me wrong, I read a fair bit of YA and enjoy it. There is nothing wrong with this book because it has YA overtones. I found it jarring, however, that the tone and storyline of the novel seemed so YA, while the sensibility and narrative voice were definitely adult. Perhaps that reflects Gloria rather well; she's an adult -- a mother -- but is emotionally at the level of her teenage self. The adolescent issues of struggle with one's mother run both ways for her, both as Julia's mother and with her own Mennonite mother. It's this flaw in Gloria that ultimately makes me feel that her final insights and her new lease on life are rather sad, almost glib, rather than uplifting. Disappointingly, I have to give this only a so-so rating, but hold great hopes that Friesen's next book will be more in my line.