The Sky is Falling / Caroline Adderson
Toronto: Thomas Allen, c2010.
The cover of this caught my eye, that and the fact that I have always meant to read something by this highly recommended author. Not only is this cover eye-catching (I love gnomes) but it is also a clue to the story, which you come to discover slowly as you get deeper into the book.
This is a story that switches between two times: Vancouver in 1983 and in 2004. We follow Jane Z. from her beginnings as naive university student to her eventual existence as suburban mother.
Jane leaves Edmonton for Vancouver in 1982 to attend UBC (the University of British Columbia). She's not sure exactly what she wants to do, but is studying Russian language and literature. Her passion is for Chekhov, and this passion infuses the book, with Jane reading Chekhov aloud at times, with his stories being discussed in the narrative, with Jane's experiences in her Russian Lit class, with running lists of Jane's analysis of things like footwear or word choice in Chekhov. His style, his subject matter, his themes and characterizations, all seem to reflect or be reflected by this story.
Jane begins university living with her aunt, but is desperate to move on to campus for her second year to feel more connected to the whole university experience. By the time her parents agree to this, it is so late that everything is taken, and Jane ends up getting a room in a house filled with activists. This rag-tag bunch becomes her focus, with their concerns and squabbles taking over her life. As they argue about what can be done to halt nuclear war, what 'action' they can take, their relationships spiral downwards into distrust and potential violence.
Interspersed with this deeply realized tale of adolescent idealism is Jane's point of view from 20 years on. As the book opens, Jane sees an image of her old roommate Sonia in the newspaper, a picture of Sonia being released from her 20 year prison sentence. This throws Jane back into the events of twenty years ago, and we relive it through her eyes. She was particularly fascinated by Sonia when they were students, and so this situation brings up all those tangled emotions from student days. Both 80's Jane (commonly known as Zed due to her unwieldy Polish last name) and current Jane have full lives, with supporting characters who are fully drawn individuals. As she goes back and forth we get to know more about her past as well as figure out how she's ended up as a suburban doctor's wife and mother of a teenage son, working quietly as a freelance editor.
Jane sees the morning paper, and wonders whether she should visit Sonia now that she is out of prison. Finally, by the end of the book, she decides she should -- and with that visit all the glamour of those student years is dispersed as she realizes that you really can't go home again.
I found the structure of this book intriguing -- we are seeing the same person at two very different points in their life. And the characters! Adderson ably draws a multitude of young students, all different but all so real. I felt sorry for some of them, and detested some of them, but it was so easy to imagine the bookish Jane being mesmerized by them, drawn into their schemes by the charisma and convictions they held. The action of the story evolves very naturally out of the behaviour of each character; it felt inevitable considering each person's attitudes.
But along with that we have Chekhov's sensibility contrasting with the lives these young activists are so earnestly leading, feeling at least to me to be pointing out that human life is much more complex than political positions can usually account for. There is still a place for literature in this world of protest and activism; as Jane's Russian professor says at one point:
One thing I'm trying to teach you, my dear pupils, is to read what is really on page, to respond to it with all your hearts, as human beings. Literature will make you better person. It will teach you sympathy and compassion for all manner of peoples, but not if you read it with closed mind. Not if you read to prove your closed mind is right.
The story shifts as we have the appearance near the end of Jane's future husband, a punk with pins through his lip who, along with his other punk friends, saves her from the violence of one of her "peacenik" roommates. The expectation of violence is completely reversed in this scene, rather effectively. The co-existence of the punk scene with the insular, 60's-ish house Jane lives in is a bit unexpected as well.
All in all, there are many oppositions, clashing beliefs and black-and-whites that turn out to be gray in this book. It was addictive reading, and wonderfully evocative of a period. There was a lot of plot to keep you turning pages, but also amazing description and characterizations. I loved reading this and think it would be a fruitful source for discussion in a book group. So glad I finally read something by Caroline Adderson, and now I understand why so many people were telling me to pick up one of her books!
Caroline Adderson is the author of two internationally published novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice) and two books of short stories: Bad Imaginings (Porcupine's Quill 1993) and Pleased to Meet You (Thomas Allen 2006). Her work has received numerous prize nominations including the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. A two-time Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and three-time CBC Literary Award winner, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award.