Thursday, May 17, 2012

Magnified World

Not that long ago there was an interesting discussion on Twitter about how (or if) knowledge and experience with the setting of a novel affected the way you connect with the story being told. (If you aren't on Twitter and this seems to go against everything you've heard about the medium, let me just say that it all depends on who you interact with and that, yes, there are a lot of interesting literary discussions being hashed out in 140-character bites.) Personally, I love finding a book that's set somewhere I'm familiar with. Reading Ami McKay's The Birth House, for example, was a thrill partially because it's set in my home town (albeit nearly 100 years before I lived there). Likewise, as I become more comfortable with the idea that I now live in Toronto, books set in neighbourhoods I'm familiar with pop out at me in way they perhaps would not have five years ago. Nonetheless, the geography of a novel is, in some ways, incidental to whether or not I'll enjoy it, because even if I'm reading about somewhere I'm familiar with, I'm still experiencing it through the eyes and emotions of a fictional character, which means, in a way, that my experience doesn't matter. I had to remind myself of this a few times while reading Grace O'Connell's gorgeous debut novel Magnified World, though, because not only do her descriptions mimic the way I remember certain places, but her character Maggie feels wonderfully familiar, as if I've bumped into her before.

Magnified World is set, since we're on the subject, mostly in Toronto's West Queen West/Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood. Queen Street, certainly, figures into the story a lot, as does College Street and Kensington Market. If you are familiar with these places, reading O'Connell's descriptions offers a warm buzz of recognition; if you aren't, though, be assured that this is not an insider's look at Toronto: the descriptions are vivid and accurate in the way that lets you unconsciously map out a character's movements, without feeling overwhelmed by comings and goings. It's my favourite way to read about cities, really – detailed without becoming clinical.

Anyway, the novel begins with Maggie waking up on the floor of her family's shop. Well, it's her mother's shop, really, but her mother has recently committed suicide, leaving the shop in Maggie's hands (her father is a professor). She doesn't know where she has been and she is wearing shoes she doesn't recognize – the whole night is just negative space. And then it happens again, this time it kicks in during a picnic in the park with her boyfriend and she doesn't come out of it until she's crossing the street later and trips on the streetcar track. As far as Andrew knew, she was fine the whole time. Maggie's blackouts, as they come to be called, lead her to go see a therapist, which she hasn't done since her mother filled her pockets with zircon and walked into the Don River.

The aforementioned shop, Pierce Gifts & Oddities, is a kind of alternative, New Age, organic products type of place. It sells stones with curative properties, silk scarves, organic beauty products, incense, crystal balls, and that sort of thing. During the '60s it was a haven for draft dogers. That's when Maggie's mom, originally from Georgia, started to work there. When the original owner died, he left the  building – comprising the shop and its upper apartment – to her mom, who changed the name and took it over. Maggie grew up in there, filtering stones through her fingers and watching her mom do Tarot readings, and taking notes on everything so she could do it too. Her note-taking didn't stop as a child, though, and after her mother's suicide she starts writing snapshots of her memories: arguments her parents had, her mother interacting with customers, herself learning to swim.

As Maggie's grief deepens, she becomes convinced that the only way to push through it is to wade into her mother's life – to find out everything she can about the woman who has suddenly become a mystery to her. She switches therapists, changing to a man who once knew her mother in the hopes that he will tell her about what she was like. And she begins to turn away from her boyfriend toward a stranger named Gil, a man who says he's writing a book about her mother and, in exchange for Maggie's memories, he will help stop the blackouts. It's a desperate play, but she takes him up on it. Eventually, though, things get so bad that she decides she needs to get out of the city. Her therapist runs a residential grief centre, and she agrees to try his treatment. Her blackouts are becoming more dangerous, and even she is aware that she has become a little unhinged. Gil has proven no help at all, but he nonetheless follows her to the treatment centre and insists they continue their work.

Grief is a desperately personal experience, and in Maggie O'Connell has crafted a unique response to tragedy. I don't think it's a spoiler to call her state a kind of psychosis, and as her ties to her day-to-day life become looser, her desperation to know about her mother grows stronger, until she literally has to face the way her mother died. With all of that, Magnified World should be an overwhelmingly sad novel, but it isn't. O'Connell is a sensitive writer, and her humour carries Maggie's story, which is as much a kind of quest narrative as it is an exploration of loss. 

Magnified World is, I think, the kind of quietly beautiful novel that sneaks up on you as you read it. Maggie's voice is so natural that you can't help falling for it, just as she does, and her life is so vividly depicted that you can't help but feel it and see it as she does. That you get pulled so irrevocably into her perspective is one of the novel's greatest feats, because like her, you become blinded to certain realities, which makes the conclusion all the more powerful and overwhelming and, above all else, deeply satisfying. 

Magnified World
by Grace O'Connell
first published in 2012 (cover image shown from Random House Canada edition)


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