Anansi Review Crew: February by Lisa Moore June 23 2009
February begins twenty-five years after the tragedy as Helen tries to gather her courage to take another risk: moving forward while still trapped in that one fateful month-long past. The novel has the feel of a scrapbook, with each short section (each a memory) given a name and a year, one that you could imagine penciled beneath the vivid portraits that follow. This is a book made of the scraps of a life, of those crystalline memories that remain unravaged by time. And in developing this photographic memory, Moore shows her talent for sharply rendering quotidian details through the lenses of her characters. It is this combination of precise physicality and emotional acuity that takes February beyond its conventional themes, and what makes it sharp, compassionate, and fully realized.
This is not entirely a story about the past. Helen and Cal’s only son, John, unexpectedly learns he is about to be a father, and contemplates a huge risk of his own. Helen attempts to move on, creating custom wedding dresses, sewing her own loss into this symbol of hope and new beginnings. Perhaps, Helen will be able to turn her tattered past into a dress of her own, but not without great risk. It would not be taken by a relative ingénue in the first blush of love, but by a mature woman with the knowledge of loss and consequence. With Helen’s tentative forays into romance, Moore’s novel of tragedy turns into something more impressive: a touching portrait of courage in spite of the fragility of human affairs.
by Jennifer Knoch
February is a story of real people — people who love, laugh, argue, shop at WalMart and Value Village and raise their children in the best way they know how.
February is also a story of loss and grief — grief that is not of the moment, but rather of the decades. It is the story of three generations: Helen O’Mara and her husband Cal, who perished on the Ocean Ranger; their four children — John, Cathy, Lulu, and Gabrielle; and their children.
The novel has a complex structure where the past and present blend, sometimes within a single sentence. The past, the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1984, continually intrudes upon the present as Helen lives her life under a cloud of grief and survivor guilt. But Lisa Moore does not allow her characters to wallow in their grief nor does her book at any time descend into sentimentality. Her characters are tough as befits the reputation of Newfoundlanders. Helen O’Mara and her children work through their daily battles and emerge as stronger human beings.
February is a wonder book of courage and sacrifice. The reader will come away from it with a renewed sense of hope and faith in the future.
by Sandra Furlotte
If not now, when?
When heartbreak surfaces: Lisa Moore’s February
Daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, widow, grandmother, lover, wife — the phases of female life cycle rapidly in Lisa Moore’s February, the story of Helen O’Mara, whose husband Cal is killed when the offshore oil rig Ocean Ranger sinks off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982, leaving her with three children, pregnant with their fourth.
The novel weaves back and forth in time between 2008 and the late 1970s, from the time Helen first met and married Cal to her current life as a grandmother of two, running a dressmaking business and having finally achieved peace of a sort. There is still gnawing grief over what could have been, anger at the fact that she was denied closure since her husband’s body was never recovered, and a yearning for what could have been in an alternate universe, a universe in which men don’t leave home to take dangerous jobs to support their growing families, a world where unemployment isn’t systemic and the struggle to survive emotionally and economically doesn’t always seem epic.
Several years ago (I think it was in July 2002) I attended an amazing seminar that was part of Simon Fraser University’s Summer Publishing Workshop. Six authors and six critics formed the panel, talking mainly about the trend to — and redefinition of — historical fiction as a genre. No longer merely bodice rippers or period romance novels, authors like Wayne Johnston, Michael Crummey, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Jack Hodgins had all recently published works of historical fiction.
That seminar was my introduction to Lisa Moore and her work. She told a charming story about the response she’d received to her second collection of short stories, Open. She said that one of the stories in the collection dealt with a philandering husband, and that after Open was published, her own husband had been upbraided on more than one occasion at the mall in St. John’s, Nfld., for being unfaithful to her, by readers who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — believe that art wasn’t thinly disguised life with only the names changed. So I leapt at the chance to read February when House of Anansi offered advance review copies (publication date is June 27, 2009) on Twitter.
Moore is a force to be reckoned with on the literary scene, a writer who has by no means reached the peak of her literary abilities and who continues to grow from book to book. I hear echoes of many other women writers in her work: A. S. Byatt, Fay Weldon, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields (Republic of Love and Unless), Anita Brookner, the two Janes (Hamilton and Smiley), a touch of Sue Miller (The Good Mother) and, if not Sylvia Plath, then certainly Anne Sexton. This passage immediately reminded me of Sexton’s poem “Clothes,” and its inimitable line about being still ‘sixteen in the pants.’
She watches Barry’s thumb press the caulking into the crack and she thinks again the thing every adult woman thinks of herself—that she is still her sixteen-year-old self.
It is not a thought. Helen becomes sixteen; she is sixteen: the shyness and wonder. It comes over her briefly. And then it is gone. She is forty-nine, fifty, she is fifty-two. Fifty-six. The world has betrayed her, arthritis in her wrists.
How deeply she craves to be touched. Because what follows not being touched, Helen has discovered, is more of the same—not being touched. And what follows a lack of touching is the dirtiest secret of all, the most profane: forgetting to want it.
You forget, she thinks. You forget so deeply, desire is obliterated. A profound and altering chill befalls.
The only cure is to chant: I want, I want.
I also see Moore writing in very much the same vein as Roddy Doyle in his Barrytown Trilogy (The Snapper, The Van, The Commitments). One of the responses to her first novel, Alligator, was surprise that St. John’s was portrayed as a metropolis with its share of grit, including vandalism, eco-terrorism, and infiltration by the Russian mafia rather than the happenstance capital of a province that specializes in quaint. More than anything, Moore’s Helen O’Mara is a woman who endures. In the face of blinding, unexpected grief, she concludes her role is to be there for her children — and that part of being there means teaching them that life is tough. By the time she’s a grandparent, after the sheer routine of 25 years of getting on with it, putting one foot in front of the other whether she wants to or not — her style has changed, and she finds herself wanting to indulge and pamper her grandchildren.
Moore was interviewed briefly on Canada AMthis morning. During the interview she spoke of how little had been written about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger, what a closed and unknowable environment it was, particularly to women. There were no women working on the rig that was declared ‘unsinkable’ and few visits from anyone not working on the rig were allowed due to the potential for industrial espionage. Not many of the bodies were recovered, and the lack of closure that resulted means the event is still alive for Newfoundlanders who lost loved ones. “The heartbreak comes to the surface” when it’s mentioned, Moore said.
As long ago as Open, Moore’s verbal dexterity was evident.
A woman with a toddler in a convenience store during a hold-up. I am an obdurate subplot, stubbornly present. How did I get here?” — “Natural Parents”
She’s only getting better, as you can see from this passage from February:
England looked like England rolling past the tinted windows. It was lush and green and there was a field of sheep. It was as if Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence had written down exactly what they’d seen and it had all stayed that way, or as if everybody here had read those books and made the landscape look like it was in the novels. There were trees and hedges and stone walls and sheep. The sheep, scattered here and there on the green hills, were an authentic touch.
Moore’s an author who never disappoints, and February is no exception. My only regret is that we’ll probably have to wait another year or two for her next novel.
by Ruth Seeley
Grief. We have all had our taste of it. It is never a requested menu item, but there it is, strong and sustainable among the human range of emotions. And it won’t go away at will. It takes its own time.
February is an insightful look into one woman’s grief twenty-six years after the drowning of her husband at sea. We have all read stories of loss. So what makes February stand out from the other teary-eyed readings that already line one bookshelf of my study wall?
Through Helen O’Mara, Lisa Moore has succeeded in shedding light on the brief moments that sit on the boundaries of our consciousness, where the most private of inner dialogues take place. How she uses the senses to describe everyday life is unique, and the life that is shared here is that of a woman who is on intimate terms with love and grief. This story isn’t as tearful as it is, quite simply, full of revelation about the inner workings of memory and of how we remain connected to our own life.
I suspect Moore threw out her copy of Strunk and White long ago. Her unfaithfulness to proper sentence structure, reminiscent of writers such as Ward Just and Marie-Claire Blais, leaves her readers at the mercy of the protagonist. You could say that it provides us with a backstage pass, and what is revealed in the mayhem is life.
by Marjolaine Hébert
If you have ever experienced grief firsthand, there are thoughts and feelings that come along with it, and at times there just aren’t words to express them fully to people who haven’t been through it, albeit the death of a loved one such as a parent or a partner or primary breadwinner in Eastern Canada aboard an oil rig or anything of the like.
Helen’s husband works on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland. All of a sudden she has an inescapable feeling that something horrible has happened to her husband. Everyone tells her she is silly and that everything is fine, but then the comes the news — the “Ocean Ranger” has sunk off the coast of Newfoundland in a fierce storm on the most loving day of the year — Valentine’s Day, 1982. Helen’s husband and 83 other men perished. What she doesn’t yet know is that she is pregnant with their fourth child.
Going from the past to present, Lisa Moore envelops you in Helen’s grief so utterly and completely, at times, without you knowing it until you are smack dab in the middle of what she is experiencing, until you take a breath and realize you’re there. At this point, you really have only two choices, put the book down or continue on and wait for the tears to flow.
Lisa definitely takes you on a journey of life, loss, grief, finding oneself, and, finally, letting go.
I have to admit, this book will, hands down, be one of my absolute favourites for 2009. Totally engulfing, mesmerizing, and succinct, Lisa Moore has a way with words, and how she puts them all together will leave you breathless and wanting more.
by Marci Catania
On Valentine’s Day, 1982, a terrible storm hit the coast of Newfoundland. An oil rig called the Ocean Ranger sank, causing the death of 83 men. Lisa Moore’s new novel February explores the psyche of Helen O’Mara whose husband Cal was on the boat. The narrative is divided into short sections, dropping in on a moment in Helen’s timeline and then doubling back or moving forward with graceful fluidity to visit another one. Such are the poignant details of these moments that it’s possible to pick up the threads and weave together the at times heartbreaking story of Helen’s life.
Moore does an excellent job of capturing the pain of Helen’s loss and the difficulty of being left alone to raise three children. The narrative also touches on the lives of Helen’s fatherless children, especially her son John, who is surprised to discover he will soon become a father. Moore’s prose simply dazzles with its understated emotions and evocative use of colourful images. The two are often juxtaposed to wonderful effect, as in a scene about the now grown-up John:
And Jane Downey had hung up on him. There was just the platform and the giant boulders and the pale yellow dress of the Japanese child and the red candy ring catching the light. (33)
The beauty of Lisa’s Moore’s prose is often startling. Reluctant to reach the last page, I drew out reading February for as long as possible to savour its beauty.
by Lesley Trites
February is a powerful novel full of insight into how life goes on, in spite of us, even if it leaves broken slivers of hearts in its wake.
It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that one result of losing a brother, a husband, a father, or a son to the sea would be loneliness. Loneliness is hard to write about without becoming maudlin, or cliché. Lisa Moore does not have that problem. She seems to understand this very human facility. It’s amazing just how well she can put words to an extremely indescribable emotion.
Ms. Moore is a new author to me. Though she’s been twice nominated for the Giller Prize, I have not read any of her previous books. I like knowing I can go back to her list, learning more about her craft and losing myself in her stories.
Of course, I recommend this book. You’ll be surprised how it makes you feel.
by Carla Maria Lucchetta