A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
After a brief but life-changing holiday affair ends her eighteen-year marriage, Liselle Dupre moves from Toronto to a remote village on the west coast of Ireland. She gradually becomes acquainted with some of the locals, whose wholehearted charm and colourful stories revive her spirits and inspire her to make a documentary about their interwoven tales of romance. While she explores her new surroundings, Liselle comes to confront her own tumultuous past and her feelings for Charlie, the Welsh painter who rekindled her passions in Mexico, realizing that to tell the stories of others, she must first reveal her own.
I have to say that this is exactly the kind of lyrical yet strong book blurb that attracts me at my time of life, ie a mid-forties woman wanting something far meatier than the light romantic fiction she consumed in her twenties. So I was very much looking forward to getting my teeth into this one, even though the quote on the front of the book turned my stomach and made me reach for the bucket:
Any woman who ever had her heart cracked open by a man should read The Ice Chorus.
Harrumph, I say, and arrant nonsense indeed! If any man attempted to crack my heart open, I’d go at him with a boiling kettle and a pair of nutcrackers, and then see who came out worst (as my grandmother used to say) … What could Nuala O’Faolain have been thinking?? The quote doesn’t even fit the book – thank goodness. I suggest that a reprint might be wise to lose it, and quickly …
Anyway, one of the great high points of Stonich’s novel is the incredibly rich poetry it’s wrapped up in. Here, for instance, is the first paragraph:
An ocean-hued piece of silk rests over her hand like a landed butterfly. As she moves through the unheated rooms her footfalls disturb air thick with odors of previous dwellers, an old woman’s perfume and the acid tinge of cat. Her eyes water and the stripes of silk blur, seaweed bleeding over the slate of swells, blue slate smudging the white-green of sea glass. The cloth is cut from a dress she no longer wears but once cherished, a vivid scrap of her past.
What bliss that is indeed. This level of poetry instantly takes the book out of the standard genre of “intelligent women’s fiction” and places it well inside the pastures of the lyrical. I loved it. It’s a treat for the senses and I would certainly be the first to buy a book of poems by this author if one was produced. I also enjoyed the way the different timelines interwrap around each other so that the present tale becomes stronger with the memory of the past, and Lise’s (as she’s called in the novel) history is framed and structured by where she is in the present. It’s very well done indeed.
That said, I found the character of Lise herself considerably challenging. I started off enjoying her company and her unique way of seeing and relating to her world. Even though it was obvious from the start that she wasn’t a particularly warm personality. That was no problem however as, to be honest, cuddly heroines aren’t my first choice of reading matter at all. I think the main difficulty with Lise actually arises because the dynamic of her narrative is not in entire harmony with the lyrical richness of the text. I felt as if Lise’s tale was slowed down far too much by the focus on description and place, so much so that in some sections of the novel I lost sight of the story entirely.
In terms of the modern segments of the novel, where Lise is taking time out in Ireland, I did think that Stonich strayed dangerously near the point of turning her story into a rather clichéd version of the Irish women’s light novel zone (if I dare make such a statement …); as an example, where Lise is recording the stories of the villagers on video, it smacks too much of Maeve Binchy for my liking and became something of a cop-out. Not, of course, that there is anything wrong at all with the great Binchy, but it simply doesn’t fit here. And I do understand that the concept of recording life stories and reinterpreting them is one of the themes of the novel. I simply thought that a writer of Stonich’s quality could have come up with a darker and more realistic way of conveying this concept. The villagers themselves also stray too closely to the “perfect and typical Irish villagers” cliché. When I was last in Ireland (admittedly about 5 years ago now), nobody spoke like that and people certainly weren’t rushing to tell me their stories and reminisce about the past. Then again, maybe that’s just me. I’m not the approachable type. I must say in addition that Lise does on significant occasions behave in a very highhanded and immature way with them all. As a case in point, she deserved a good slapping for her ridiculous interference in the love affairs of the young girl Siobhan, and if I’d been part of Siobhan’s family, I would have had a great deal more to say about it.
I also think it’s a novel that suffers from a very bad case of mid-novel droop. When we reached the point where Lise was recounting her return to her husband after her holiday affair, and her long and agonising (for us) decision about when to leave him and how, I became very very bored and frustrated with it all. Over quite a few pages, I simply wanted to slap her yet again and tell her for God’s sake to get on with it, thus putting us all out of our misery. In fact, at that point I lost sympathy entirely with our heroine and found myself totally on the side of her husband, Stephen. Here, for instance, is one of their many post-affair exchanges when she still hasn’t told him anything:
Stephen found her packing up books and the rest of her things from their shared medicine chest. “Dr Wu said I should get plenty of uninterrupted sleep, so I’ll be staying longer in the guest room.”
He followed her down the hall as she carried her reading lamp. Her alarm clock and a photo of Adam [their son] were already on the bedside table. Stephen leaned on the bureau. “Just like in Mexico.”
His tone stopped her. “What do you mean?”
“Separate rooms.” He nodded at the box of medicines on the nightstand. “But now you’ve got a reason.”
Oh dear, poor Stephen indeed … So, having turned against Lise, I was astonished and greatly impressed by the way Stonich brought me inexorably back onto Lise’s side for the final sections of the novel, simply by means of (a) a fascinating and emotionally shocking story twist involving Lise’s dead father (which I will not reveal here) which leaves the young Lise with a terrible family burden to carry – and, no, it’s nothing to do with child abuse, thank the Lord, and (b) that strong lyrical prose Stonich spins like a web with which to entangle us. I’ve never before had the experience of enjoying the main character, then absolutely hating them, and then being reconciled to them and coming to understand and empathise with their situation again, all in the course of 300 pages or so. Heck, it’s a neat and powerful trick if you can do it. I do wish, however, that the very important story of Lise and her father had been brought into play and more obviously much sooner. Preferably where it might have counteracted that mid-novel droop zone and kept me on Lise’s side all the way through.
I can’t leave this review however without highlighting the way art is used in the novel. It’s part of the way the narrative is described and part of the way personality is seen and for this reason, perhaps, I’ve found it difficult to single out any one passage as an example. Lise’s lover is an artist, and her view of life and what happens to her changes from that revelatory moment when they meet. Although throughout the novel Charlie remains – bizarrely, I have to say – a shadowy and rather meagre figure, the pictures he paints of Lise during their affair alter both Lise and the reader’s view of her, and I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of her personality being shown more deeply or in a different light, depending on how the pictures are hung and in which order. Much like the stories we tell of our own lives then.
In any case, Stonich at her best is certainly a writer to reckon with, and her themes of art, passion and stories are here conveyed on the whole with a pleasingly lyrical touch. I for one would be happy to see more from her.
The Ice Chorus by Sarah Stonich (Alma Books, 2009), ISBN: 978-1-84688-082-7
[Anne is deeply moved by art and lyricism, but significantly less so by indecision and cracked hearts. To find out if she has any Irish blood in her, please click here.]