Rarely does a character (particularly one whose life and circumstances are so disparate from my own) latch onto my heartstrings with such tenacity, but that’s exactly what Clemance Marie Nadeau, narrator of Sarah Felix Burns debut novel, has done.
Jackfish, The Vanishing Village, is a stunning work of fiction that reads like a memoir, as Clemance tells us her story in a series of flashbacks – from her impoverished youth in Jackfish, a northern Ontario village which has become a ghost town, to the small city of Coalville, Colorado, where she now finds herself – unemployed, separated from her husband, and pregnant at the age of forty two.
In between lies a painful, sometimes harrowing journey, for Clemance is consumed with guilt about an incident which occurred in her childhood, a guilt that leaves her feeling so unworthy of love that not only has she sabotaged her only good relationship (with her husband Bernie, ever patient and kind), become deeply and dangerously addicted to drugs and alcohol, but she has also allowed herself to become the victim of horrible, vicious abuse at the hands of another man.
It’s that abuse which is so difficult to read about, revealed midway through the story when the reader has developed a relationship with Clemance, prickly and defensive as she can sometimes be. I occasionally needed to set the book aside for a moment, to separate myself from the violence- but only for a moment, because I was entirely captivated by Clemance’s story and was hoping against hope she could find her way out of this terrible relationship into a life of freedom and possibility.
For Clemance is just as much a prisoner as the convicts in the penitentiary near her home in Colorado, or her childhood boyfriend who was killed while trying to escape a life sentence for murder, or any of woman who has been victimized in an abusive relationship.
“Guilt…has a way of festering and compounding over time. When you grow up with the rawness of guilt devouring you from the inside you have few defences against the outside world. To fill the void left from the rampaging badness, you take on the retribution, the punishment, and feel it is rightly deserved. Indeed, it feels almost good. I have been dodging and fleeing that painful force for years…”
If there is redemption to be found for Clemance, it will come from family – not the family of her birth, but the one of her creation, with Bernie and their daughter Miette, whose birth seems to provide Clemance with some measure of the peace she needs to allow herself to be happy.
“But is it possible to take a stand? To say that I will no longer put up with this? To believe that I can walk out on those streets with my head held strong and high? I look at the baby cuddled up beside me…she smiles up at me and blows bubbles. Jesus Christ, she’s alive. I am alive. And I gave life to her.”
It’s easy to become so engrossed in this story that you almost fail to notice what a good writer Burns really is. Her descriptive prose is just as vivid when applied to the real world as to her character’s emotional turmoil.
“Each summer night in Jackfish, the long black train would pass. It was the freight carrying cargo up north or out west. You could hear it coming up the tracks an hour away. Its rumble slowly grew closer and deeper, becoming so ominous it sounded like the train would explode right through the house. Then it would race by, sometimes for hours it seemed, because the train was so long. Finally, you could hear it fade off into the distance until the night sky was filled again with only the sound of crickets and the waves breaking on the shore.”
Clemence’s life story is indeed painful, yet Burns handles these deeply troubling epidsodes without ever falling prey to sensationalism or sentimentality. And she provides moments of warmth and peace which soothe the readers emotions while illuminating Clemence’s own needs for comfort and stability.
Ultimately it is Clemance’s strength and determination the reader latches on to, as we continue devouring her story, cheering for her as she scramles from the pit of worthlessness and degradation. Through it all, she clings to the memories of her hometown, believing that “at some spiritual level the physical land where we are from is always part of who we are, even if we are separated from it.”
The village of Jackfish may have disappeared off the map, but it left a lasting impression on this character’s heart and psyche.
And this novel will do the same for everyone who reads it.
by Sarah Felix Burns
published 2007, by Inanna Publications and Education, Inc.
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