Steam-punkish humour sparks Musgrave’s novel

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March 6, 2013

By Susan Musgrave
Thistledown Press, pp. 298.

Reviewed by Arleen Paré

Given is the second novel in a trilogy by Susan Musgrave. Musgrave is a poet, a novelist, a writer of children’s books and of non-fiction with over twenty-six books to her name. Cargo of Orchids (2001) was the first in this trilogy. However, while some of Cargo’s characters people the pages of Given, this time around they are not quite alive. Which is a clue. Another clue is the cover. Decidedly ghoulish, it depicts a mechanical model of a human body sans left leg and right forearm. The model hangs from chains, head flopped forward at an awkward angle. Pieces of electrical wire protrude from the openings the limbs once occupied. Coiled springs and empty limbs strew the dark background. A steampunk sort of image. I don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, but steampunk stayed with me as I read.

The narrator has just escaped from death row in an American prison. Her crime: murdering her own child. Her two death-row friends, Rainy and Frenchy, have already died on death row — for the murders of their children. Death and death images, grief, addiction, ghosts, pain – these fill the book. Humour too. Susan Musgrave is a very funny writer even when her focus is on death. The story follows the narrator as she makes her way to a West Coast island with the help of her slightly estranged husband, Vernal. The names are clever. The penitentiary is called Mountjoy. The pet cat is Aged Orange. Vernal drives an old hearse. And throughout her escape, her arrival on the island, her sojourn to the city, the narrator notes with fitting irony an amazing number of odd and amusing events, signs, sayings in the surrounding world in which she is now a stranger. A radio caller asks Jesus for help losing weight; Rainy (now a ghost) wonders if it hurts flowers when you cut them; the drugstore is called Drugs R Us.

Steampunk is a variety of speculative fiction that appears in a number of literary, theatrical and cinematic forms. Historical steampunk generally situates a narrative in the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era before the advent of electricity when steam power was pervasive. But steampunk also refers to a literary variety of “gas-lit” horror and fantasy that includes supernatural elements. This is how Given affected me: a melancholy narrative of grief and regret with a fantastical, almost horrific understory. Intriguing, compelling, imaginative. And real. It all depends where the spotlight lands. I had no question that the events described fell more within the range of reality than the fantastical. The descriptions of prison life, the punishments, addictions – all believable. That the child ghosts arrive in red mist – also understandable, under the circumstances. That the narrator speaks with ghosts – of course. Nonetheless, as a whole, Given is fantastical. It is funny. It is literary. It is a most unusual read. I look forward to the third in this trilogy.


Author Arleen Paré is a frequent reviewer for Coastal Spectator

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