The separate histories of two sisters are traced with understated compassion in this superb novel, the ninth from the Ontario author (Farthing’s Fortunes, 1976, etc.) and winner of Canada’s Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award.
A haunting epigraph from Rilke that asserts the dignity and value of unremarkable lives precedes the text, which is composed mostly of dairy entries penned by the eponymous Clara, an unmarried schoolteacher who remains in her rural hometown of Whitley (near Toronto), and the letters Clara exchanges with her “glamorous” sister Nora, who escapes Whitfield for New York City and a career starring in a popular radio soap opera, and also with cynical Evelyn Dowling, the irrepressibly mannish writer of Nora’s show, The House on Chestnut Street. Hardly ever raising his voice, Wright assembles a vivid picture of pre-WWII Canada (the story’s major events occur during the years 1934–38), when the Western world thrills to he phenomenon of the Dionne quintuplets and nervously observes the rise of fascism in far-off Europe. It’s as if the “progress” of the century ironically mocks that of Clara, who makes hesitant forays away from her stifling matrix—daring a brief trip abroad with the now-sophisticated Nora, enduring a frustrating not-quite-love affair with her “man” in Toronto, self-absorbed Frank Quinlan (a devastating characterization of the kind of superficially appealing male whom every woman eventually realizes she never really wanted), and consequentially encountering a menacing drifter that fulfills with a vengeance Clara’s fantasies of “adventure.” A terse afterword reveals the later fates of both sisters, incidentally explaining how their story came to be written. Though nobody seems to have noticed, Clara Callan is almost certainly modeled on Arnold Bennett’s classic 1908 novel, The Old Wives’ Tale—and is not much, if at all, inferior to that masterpiece.
A wrenching chronicle of time passing and opportunity lost.