Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hatbox Letters

The Hatbox Letters / Beth Powning
Toronto: Knopf, c2004.
348 p.

This novel is a meditation on grief; the main character, Kate Harding, progresses through her sorrow after her husband Tom dies suddenly from a heart attack at age 50. I picked it up after having it on my list for a few years, mainly because it's set in New Brunswick and it has to do with letters. I am glad I finally did so, as the regal, measured writing of the first few chapters affected me more than I had first realized. I began reading this on a Sunday morning, and realized much later in the day that I'd had a musical phrase repeatedly running in my mind for no good reason. The descriptive strength of her writing, using all the senses and full of emotion, apparently called forth a soundtrack from the corners of my memory. This was a first!

I found that the structure and pace of the book, although considered slow moving by many readers, fit this novel perfectly. The pace of the storytelling matches the pace of Kate's recovery and return to life. The story moves slowly; time is thick and slow, like her perceptions of life without Tom, and there is not a lot of narrative action to carry you along. The movement is inside of Kate and her thoughts, feelings, reactions to life are what change by the end of the book.

The story told is not just about Kate, however. The story is enriched by Kate's discovery of her grandparents' life through their letters. At the same time as Kate's being left alone and at loose ends by the death of her husband, the family house in Shepton, Connecticut is being sold and she ends up with nine hatboxes from the attic, full of family papers. She sorts the papers and discovers that her grandparents' happy marriage was based on tragedy; their youth was scarred by the kind of deaths common to an era without much in the way of antibiotics or vaccinations. Their lives, revealing how love and contentment are possibilities even after great loss, sustain her in her sorrow. There is another element which adds forward movement to the book -- an old acquaintance of Kate and Tom's from the days when their children were young reappears in New Brunswick. Divorced from his wife, he is insistent about reconnecting with Kate, but in an obsessive manner which disturbs her. His behaviour, born of his refusal to let go of the tragedies of his past, subtly suggests that Kate needs to find another way to move forward.

The structure of the book was intriguing; as I've mentioned, the slow pacing is quite noticeable and takes a while to adjust to. Once I was hooked into the story, I could see that pace as a deliberate choice, reflecting the situation of our main character. It was also interesting, to me anyhow, to note that the parts about her grandparents' lives were written in the past tense while the sections in the present day are all in the historical present:

Kate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater pushed to her elbows... In the corner is a stack of nine antique hatboxes. She has not touched them since they were set down a week ago, delivered by her sister, who drove them up from Hartford. ... Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought had vanished, like the past itself. That it has not and is still here, the aroma of horsehair and leather, of apples and musty quilts, of old dresses and satin ribbons -- that this smell still exists here in this Canadian river valley, six hundred miles north of her grandparents' house, is disquieting. It awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.

Beth Powning is also known as a nature writer, and has written a memoir about the loss of a child; both of these experiences are fully present in this novel. Her descriptive abilities are stunning, each sense called upon so that you feel as if you are in Kate's old vinyl-floored kitchen, listening to the evening rain fall, feeling the cool damp breeze sifting through the window screens as she sits motionless, remembering. This evocation of the natural world was one of the rewards for sticking with the story. Kate's elaborate garden is also very important to her, it was something she and Tom built up together, and at the beginning the idea of having to deal with it all overwhelms her. By the end she has moved to a place where she is once again looking forward to caring for the garden, but in a new way. This is an introspective, meditative novel, and I think you have to be in just the right mood for it. It does lag in parts, but I was already so immersed in Kate's New Brunswick surroundings and her family history that I wanted to keep reading anyhow.

I can't say much against a book which results in my spontaneously humming Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd movement for the rest of the day. It's like the emotion of the music was written into a book, and it's this one. Gorgeous book, gorgeous heartbreaking music.


  1. sounds like a fascinating read. I'll have to add it to my TBR list on good reads.

    Thanks for another great review.

  2. I loved this book too. I don't remember thinking it was slow. Thanks for the great review!

  3. Serena - I think you might like this one too.

    Avisannschild - So glad to hear you loved it! I kept running across so many people who didn't like it because "nothing really happened". :(

  4. What a wonderful review, you've captured everything that I loved about this book! I agree that it has a more relaxed pace but it's one of those books whose characters linger long after the final page. I especially enjoyed the unfolding story of her grandparents as viewed through the "hatbox letters", tragic yet, so beautifully told.


Thanks for stopping by ~ I always enjoy hearing your comments so please feel free to leave some!