Art of Salvage – Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail – September 23, 2006

Primum Mobile

Coined “mobile” by French surrealist Marcel Duchamp, the invention has been accredited to U.S. sculptor Alexander Calder. Calder’s mobiles are kinetic, often intricate sculptures interconnected by metal stems and wire veins. Driven by motor or air currents, the movements are whimsical, erratic. Random.

Amber, the protagonist of Saskatchewan writer Leona Theis’s second work of fiction, is more hoarder than artiste, and her mobile is in fact a larger attempt to restore order. Logic. A box of discards turns metaphor; the carefully chosen objects attributed to the people, relationships in the young woman’s life. Her assemblage — a single earring, a broken fish hook, a crockery shard — is unwieldy, more a cartographer’s road map into the past than an aesthetic object or study of equilibrium. “When your own beginnings are indistinct — once in a while you need tangible evidence of who you are.”

It ain’t easy. Then again, never was. At 14, Amber learned, first from schoolyard bullies and later at home, that her real birth parents were her emotionally distant older “sister” Delorie and the boyfriend, Phil, she had at 19. “Mom” and “Dad” were in fact her grandparents. Imagine this moment. Now imagine it again and again, stuck in your throat for the next dozen years. Or for the last 26, almost 27?

Imagine being Del. Occasionally dropping by her daughter/sister’s workplace to say not much of anything, then hurrying off to watch the evening news. Not local news, not Saskatoon, but the distant killings, arsons and happenings of Detroit. Del’s defence to friend Vivien is simple: “It’s just stories. Like reading a book. Last week they reported on a jilted cop who found love letters another guy wrote to his fiancĂ©e. So the cop broke into her apartment and set the letters on fire in her bedroom.”

Vivien’s reply: “Real enough to him. Real enough to the woman with the burning bedroom.” That is the difficult part. The aftermath. The questions. Motives. DNA.

Del prefers the “tuck, fold, fasten” of her factory job, the orderly house, the two weeks vacation spent there. Distance from local news, her daughter, her past, herself. Amber would rather have confrontation if it meant truth. To know about her birth father. Anything. Is he really dead? It is here, in these honest struggles, inner and outer, that Theis saves the novel from unbearable sentiment or high-noon melodrama.

There is no quick fix. Neither of these women is particularly glamorous, driven or moral. They subsist on crackers and flat colas, waiting tables, cutting fabric. No university degrees or Mr. Rights. We are all creatures of diversion and necessity. All part of a family, however conventional or not it may be.

It is hard not to see ourselves in these pages. Sometimes we turn a page quickly, and at others we stay a while. A paragraph reread. Theis gives us something to think about. Besides, she’s got it in spades. I mean, she can write. I wish I could just reprint pages 98-100, but my word count says otherwise, so here goes, just a little taste of it:

“When Delorie was a girl, her mother had shown her how to make something go away. The thing her mother could make go away was a salesman’s knock . . . a beefy man offering cleaning liquids and stain removers . . . the blender man who had demonstrated how to make a health drink without even cracking the raw egg ahead of time. . . . ‘Don’t move.’ Her voice was sharp. ‘Don’t say a word and don’t make a noise.’ Mom turned the radio back on. . . . [Delorie] looked at the iron expression on her mother’s face and knew it was shame that made her hide; the unfinished siding, the half-hearted carpentry . . . the fact that she hadn’t allied herself with the right man. The difference the siding man didn’t know he was referring to when he talked about what was and what could be.”

The cover blurbs of praise from Lisa Moore and Yann Martel are not out of obligation but recognition for a book of loss and hope told with eloquence and fearlessness. All in all, a sincere pleasure to read.

Maggie Mortimer dedicates this review to her late mum, who, even in absence, remains her favourite thing about the world.

The Art of Salvage

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After a good run, The Art of Salvage is now out of print. A digital edition is in the works. In the meantime, please try your local library, or inter-library loan. A limited number of copies are also available directly from the author.