I recently finished Canadian author Bonnie Burnard’s Suddenly, which was sent to me by the marketing folks over at HarperCollins Canada. I have not yet read Burnard’s prize-winning A Good House, but have always heard good things about it, and in particular, about Burnard’s talent of intuitive simplicity. I didn’t know what that meant but was intrigued. After finishing this latest novel, I think I have a good idea.
Set in London, Ontario, which is a small university city two hours outside of Toronto for those of you not familiar with the Canadian landscape, Burnard tells the story of the friendship of three women who are in the later part of mid life. Seamlessly easing between contemporary scenes and memories of the main characters, we the readers build ideas of who these women are as individuals and as unit. The characters are strong as a result, and the friendship seems realistic.
The over arching narrative of Suddenly is the death process of Sandra, the book’s main character. Using journals she’s kept throughout her adulthood, readers get glimpses into cultural changes that have presented themselves over the past forty years. As Sandra’s disease progresses, the journal entries offer access points to Colleen and Jude, and the emotional reactions to the changes they live through.
The link to the book’s Browse Inside feature is available if you click here. Unfortunately, the first example of how I interpreted Burnard’s talent to tell so much using so few words is on page 93, but that page isn’t accessible from the feature. Instead, let me set this up for you. Sandra is reminiscing about a card game where the three women are discussing Colleen’s reaction to her husband Richard’s philandering.
And then she’d offered her best theory, which was that looking outside a marriage was about nothing more than sexual boredom, and that if someone did a survey, they would likely find that first marriages were vaginal and second marriages oral. Whether Colleen was grateful or appalled, she couldn’t tell.
“The vagina can lose some of its dark appeal,” she told her. “At least,” she said, “that’s Jack’s thinking.”
Jack who had sworn, having got in her both a first and a second wife, that he would never, ever be bored. Realpolitick, she’d called it, shrugging her shoulders. Or, if Colleen preferred, growing old together. …
Through crafty scenes that on the surface seem jejune, Bernard draws for us intimate details about the nature of friendships.
The characterization of the women themselves is as subtle as the portrayal of their relationships with one another and their partners and children. On page 98, I felt as if I really knew Sandra: Young women like her, without the easy appeal of prettiness, and with the confusion that must create, had to look at things a little differently if they were going to survive. Sandra had probably been looking at things a little differently all her life, or at least since she’d first noticed, when? at five? at six? that absence of pretty-girl appeal given back to her from other faces. If you were ever told growing up that you “have a nice personality”, you, too, know exactly what Sandra is all about.
There are more dog-eared passages that I could share, but this post is already a bit too long. Suffice it to say that I would recommend this book, but I want to warn you, it’s emotionally exhausting to read it. Death always is.
Carol Shields wrote about A Good House that “Its grace, its generosity, its humanity are present on each of its pages.” The same could be said about Suddenly. And, like Shields’ The Stone Diaries provided, access to women’s lives outside our own is a great gift.