Top-flight fiction keeps arriving from Canada with remarkable frequency these days. This time, the high standards set by Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and others are matched—and then some—by a dramatic first novel from an award-winning Ottawa journalist and short-story writer (Small Change, 1997).
In stunningly precise and suggestive prose, Hay tells a story of obsession and rivalry neatly summarized at the start: “Two sisters fell down a well, and the well was Maurice Dove.” The two are 17-year-old Lucinda Hardy, a virginal blond, dutiful daughter, and her eight-year-old sister (and, in every way, opposite) Norma Joyce, who live with their widowed father Ernest on his remote farm in Saskatchewan during the drought-ridden late 1930s. The rather more opaque Maurice is an itinerant botanist studying western Canada’s resilient prairie grasses—as well as the weather patterns that have exacerbated the harshness of these Depression years—and a handsome, enigmatic presence who arrives, rather like Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, at the Hardy farm during a blizzard. He immediately attracts both Lucinda’s shy adoration and her sister’s precocious sexual urges, and will leave, then reenter their lives several more times in the course of a narrative that covers 40 years and moves from Saskatchewan to Ottawa and thence to New York City in the 1970s. Hay’s yearning, suffering characters have the lit-from-within emotional intensity of D.H. Lawrence’s; indeed, Women in Love comes to mind, as the rivalry between the sisters grows and alters unpredictably, and the wrongs that the aggrieved, ego-driven Norma Joyce has committed come to haunt her memory and conscience, while paradoxically fuelling (even as they inhibit and qualify) her development as a visual artist. All this against a richly realized background in which landscape, weather, and work routine are seen—quite convincingly—as shapers of both character and fate.