Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review #6: When Alice Lay Down With Peter by Margaret Sweatman

(An entertaining novel of magic realism from the Canadian prairies.)

This novel is an entirely original history of the Canadian prairies. From the early years of buffalo hunting and rebellion through to 1970, Blondie, the wry narrator, recounts the story of four feisty women: her mother, Alice; her stunningly beautiful daughter, Helen; her artist granddaughter, Dianna; and herself. In her 109 years, Blondie has seen it all, from the hanging of Louis Riel to the loss of Helen in the Spanish Civil War.

Assorted husbands, a banker, a monk, a communist and several ghosts also make an appearance, lending this marvelous literary confection set in the Red River valley of southern Manitoba a magical eccentric atmosphere. Recurring floods and lightning bolts at the moment of conception add to the rollicking mix.

Sweatman writes with rare skill and humor: “Eli looked at the corn as a Zen Buddhist would examine a screwdriver.” She delights in the way words flood their banks and find new channels through the flatlands: “My mother’s laughter, those nine months, came from the place where happiness and a nearly intolerable ache live together” and “the air was like the underside of a mushroom, milky pale lavender and musk”.

The beauty of the language never wavers. It is consistently inventive and, with the strong story, lifts this novel to another level. Highly recommended.

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