Thursday, July 7, 2011

Various Positions

Every spring, Toronto hosts Doors Open, a weekend where a on of interesting buildings in the city open their doors to the public and offer tours or at least access of their facilities. This year, our first stop was the National Ballet School. It's a gorgeous building and the tour took us through a number of the studios while the guide talked about what the classes were like and how the school worked and where the students went on to after finishing. It was a fascinating look at a kind of elite and off-limits world, and Martha Schabas' debut novel Various Positions offers something very similar, only darker.

Various Positions is mostly set at the National Ballet School, but rather than sticking to the hallways and the large and bright studio spaces, Schabas takes you into the locker rooms and the residences as well as the studios, which somehow seem less airy than I remember them being. Georgia breaths ballet, and after  years of intense study and practice, she gets an audition to the school and then gets in. She's 14, and when she starts at the school she is going into Grade 9. Ballet is the primary activity, but she and the other girls (there are only two boys in the class and Georgia barely glances at them) have two hours of school a day. 

It is a rigourous program and Roderick, their teacher and one of the most senior instructors, is very hard on them. I don't mean that in the way Victorian novels describe teachers as hard on their students only to have them turn around and pass out ice cream on the last day of class. Roderick is a realist and has no problem telling a 14-year-old girl that her thighs are too big and therefore unattractive in a ballet context, or that she's too tall and if she doesn't start excelling she won't make it. He is blunt and straightforward and Georgia, who resembles the balletic ideal, thinks he's wonderful. Initially, she sees Roderick focusing his criticism on the girls who go out to the nearby Coffee Time to meet boys from the local high school, who Georgia calls the sex girls, and she decides his criticisms are based on his disdain for their sexuality. So Georgia decides to be sexless, to be more serious, to be perfect.

But then something changes and she decides that sex is in everything. Any time Roderick touches her to adjust her position, she reads into it, and the feelings she doesn't understand or like in her body become something she anticipates with a kind of longing. Georgia lives at home and her parents' marriage is a mess, so instead of turning to her mom or her step-sister Isabel for answers, she turns to Google. And instead of helping, it gives her school girl themed porn, and Georgia decides that is how she can get Roderick. Although Georgia does have friends, she remains mostly a solitary figure, and she lives a lot in her own head, mapping out scenarios and then becoming distraught when they don't work out.

Eventually she takes things into her own hands, actively pursing Roderick, and everything crashes down around her. As the reader, you can see this coming. At 14, Georgia is unable to comprehend the potential consequences of her actions, but the tension Schabas creates between the reader who can see and Georgia who cannot propels the novel forward. I could barely read some parts because I am a wimp and I could barely stand to know what Georgia was going to do, but the story was so compelling I couldn't put it down. 

Various Positions raises a lot of issues that are not normally talked about when it comes to young girls: questions of desire and bodies and responsibility. Placing these problems at the forefront of Georgia's story makes this book much darker than you might expect, for reasons that are not strictly ballet-related. Schabas has integrated a lot of contemporary feminist issues into the novel, which gives the story a relevance that separates it from many other stories about girls this age. Georgia is not blameless here, but neither is she entirely to blame, and Schabas works beautifully with that uncertain space. 

Various Positions
by Martha Schabas
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Doubleday edition)

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