Coming-of-age novels differ in structure

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January 2, 2013

The Shore Girl
By Fran Kimmel
NeWest Press, 229 pages, $19.95

Swallow
By Theanna Bischoff
NeWest Pres, 283 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

These two Calgary, Alberta, authors have more in common than their place of residence. During this past year, NeWest Press published coming-of-age novels by each of them about girls growing up in distressed circumstances.

While the general theme may be shared, the authors’ approach and the resulting impact of the stories are markedly different, inviting a comparative analysis. The most striking difference is the structure that organizes the two novels.

While Rebee Shore, the protagonist of Fran Kimmel’s first novel, is given a voice in the telling of her story, the majority of the sections are narrated by others who observe Rebee as she struggles through a chaotic childhood guided, as the book jacket, says, “less than capably by her dysfunctional mother.”

Rebee is shown at various stages of her young life through the eyes of her Aunt Vic, her teacher Miss Bel, an older man, Jake, who treats her like a daughter, and Joey, a young man whom Rebee is able to guide through his own stressful adolescence once she has grown into the wisdom of maturity. Like lights on a multifaceted diamond, the various narrators illuminate the many facets of Rebee’s character, which emerges, finally, as rich in understanding and compassion. Rebee is someone who will touch you; she is someone I wish I could know.

The story in Theanna Bischoff’s novel Swallow, by contrast, is narrated entirely by the protagonist, Darcy. What we see is her perspective, organized primarily around flashbacks to her childhood and young adult years as she and her younger sister, Carly, struggle to survive being reared by a mentally unstable mother.

Carly doesn’t make it; the opening line informs the reader she has died, and the remainder of the book gradually reveals the circumstances of her death and the guilt Darcy feels over her sister’s suicide. By the end of the novel, Darcy has become an unwed mother living with her own mother who has recently also attempted suicide for the second or third time. The language in which this ending is written makes it clear that it is supposed to be somehow uplifting. I was not convinced. Far from wanting to know Darcy, I wanted to give her shoulders a shake and tell her to stop wasting my time and to seek professional help.

The Shore Girl builds to a carefully-crafted climax that reveals the secret of Rebee’s birth and her mother’s life-long distress that provides the satisfaction of unravelling a family mystery. Swallow, on the other hand, merely builds, progressively, the lyrics of the childhood song, There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, with a few more lines added at the beginning of each major section. I found the story hard to swallow long before the old lady swallowed the horse and died.

Joy Fisher is a fourth-year student in the Department of Writing

 

 

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