Basic Black with Pearls / Helen Weinzweig
Toronto: Anansi, 2015, c1980.
This is another of a string of 70s novels I've just finished; while this was published in 1980 originally, it holds a strong 70s feel similar to many other women's novels of the time. At least Canadian women's novels.
The main character, Shirley Kaszenbowski, nee Silverberg, takes us on a surreal trip across Toronto, revisiting her past as a Jewish immigrant in the Spadina-Dundas area. This revealing trip back into the uneasy postwar years is rather incidental -- Shirley is following clues left for her by her sometime lover, secret agent Coenraad, hoping to find him for a tryst. But does he even really exist, or is he Shirley's invention? We're not sure, but her drive to escape the routine of her numb middle-class married life could mean either is true.
The writing style is fluid; the key to it is following Shirley's thoughts, with no firm reliance on straightforward chronology or realist descriptions. Yet the sense of place comes through clearly -- Toronto really leaps to life. Weinzweig's look at a woman who is restless and ready to break out after a long stretch of marriage to a dull and controlling husband reminds me of Constance Beresford-Howe's The Book of Eve, set around the same time but in Montreal.
Weinzweig is much less tethered to everyday detail than Beresford-Howe, and the initial set-up of Shirley's international man of mystery spy lover already makes this book much more strange and unsettling from the start. But they are ruminating on some of the same questions of women's agency and the need to seize one's own life, questions that were top of mind in the 70s, it seems.
If you can comfortably read a story that will discombobulate and confuse you at times, that will poke at your expectations of a wifely character, that will throw you around in time a bit, this is the one to pick up. Weinzweig is a fascinating new-to-me author who only wrote two novels and one short story collection, and thanks to Anansi is now republished and ready to be rediscovered. Her own life was just as interesting as her fiction, and I'm happy to have picked this novel up in a recent sale, alongside of Irina Kovalyova's Specimen, another great Anansi discovery.