StarPhoenix – Saturday August 5, 2006
Resilience and Transcendence: Theis’s character counters dark themes with confidence, hope
The Art of Salvage, by Saskatoon author Leona Theis, opens with a young woman named Amber watching the demolition of a house in which she used to live. She is able to salvage only a doorbell plate before the house comes down.
Then Amber’s mother unexpectedly appears.
Until a few years ago, Amber thought Del was her older sister. However, the revelation of their true relationship has changed nothing: Del is cold and distant, just as she always was. Amber is able to save a piece of the Burton house, but can she and Del salvage their relationship?
At first, Del’s character is totally unsympathetic. The reader empathizes only with Amber, who collects bits and pieces of her life in a box, but has nothing which represents her mother. Amber is completely unable to understand Del, and so is the reader.
Then Theis makes an abrupt transition to Del’s own youth, and the reader is inexorably drawn into this woman’s story as well. Delorie moved to Saskatoon immediately after graduating from high school in small-town Saskatchewan. Determined to make a life for herself in the city, she was full of humour and confidence.
This young version of Del is just as likable as her future daughter, which makes her flat, detached adulthood seem tragic for the first time. Theis spins Delorie’s tale deftly, creating a lifelike and sometimes heart-wrenching story of the young woman’s descent into total detachment.
This book is full of everyday detail that readers may recognize from their own lives, making the story even more realistic. The sense of realism is emphasized by a local setting: readers from Saskatoon will recognize various landmarks, streets, and stores. This is a refreshing change from the usual unfamiliar, generic American city setting.
The Art of Salvage revolves around dualities: love and hate, joy and grief, drunkenness and sobriety. Amber embodies this duality in that she suffers from cyclothymia, a condition bordering on bipolar disorder. While Del seems to be emotionless, Amber lives only in extremes of emotion.
Another binary theme in this novel is that of life and death. Everywhere Amber looks, she sees death. The people she thought of as parents – in fact her biological grandparents – are dead. She finds an article in the paper about a man who froze to death in an alley decades ago. Joggers pausing on the railway bridge seem poised to plunge into the river below.
Running beside this dark theme, however, is one of resilience and transcendence. Amber’s brother, Stuart, comforts her after their parents’ funerals, and keeps his father’s business alive. The unidentified frozen body is granted a burial after complete strangers raise money for it. And when Amber finally does encounter a potential suicide on the bridge, she finds herself calm and confident in her ability to avert tragedy.
The Art of Salvage is mesmerizing. It is a carefully crafted novel which should not be missed by anyone who wants a book that will make them think.
Katie Edwards is a freelance writer.