Eriksson’s characters achingly genuine

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April 22, 2014

 High Clear Bell of Morning

By Ann Eriksson

Douglas and McIntyre

256 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

Few books make me cry. So I was genuinely surprised when I found myself crying when I finished reading High Clear Bell of Morning.  To be honest, I cried half way through too — well, I had tears in my eyes.  Of course, this is a terrifyingly sad story about a family’s struggle to come to terms with the mental illness that overtakes their daughter, Ruby, just as she enters university.  Ruby, it turns out, has schizophrenia – a painful twist in any family’s life.

The reader witnesses the undoing of Ruby through the eyes of her sympathetic father, Glen, who tries over and over to save her from her decline into addictions and deprivation.  We are with him through his initial disbelief, through his slow realization that life will never be the same, through his desperation to save Ruby.  From his perspective, there is no reason why he can’t help her overcome her illness and return to being the Ruby she once was.

Part of Eriksson’s brilliance in this, her fourth novel, springs from her choice to tell this story from two points of view: Glen’s, with whom many readers will identify, and Ruby’s as well.  We sympathize with both.  Ruby has her own reasons to feel unsafe, even if those reasons are not reasonable.  She articulates them, describing her impossible situation.  She tries to manage the voices that interfere with her family life, university courses and friends.  Of course, she can’t.   And because Ruby describes the problems, the haunting seriousness of them, the reader begins to understand too.  Eriksson balances these two points of view, Glen’s and Ruby’s, with respect and considerable neutrality, which leaves the reader aching for Ruby and for the knot that has become the family, the conundrum at the heart of serious mental illness.

At the same time, whales are dying.  Glen is a marine biologist who studies killer whales in the Salish Sea.  He collects data that suggests toxic waste in the oceans off the west coast of Canada is endangering whale habitat and whale populations.  Glen has two problems: Ruby and the whales — and he believes they might be related.

Eriksson is a novelist and an ecologist.  Both interests serve to create this very fine book.  She details the lives of killer whales and their habitat, as well as the lives of their researchers, with convincing authority.  Her descriptions of mental illness and its effects are believable.

High Clear Bell of Morning is not overwritten; it is to the point. All the details — emotional, scientific, medical, social — are presented with a credible, eponymous clarity.  But it is Eriksson’s ability to draw character with care and compassion that most successfully sustains this novel.  That is what made me cry.

Arleen Pare is a Victoria writer; her new book of poetry, Lake of Two Mountains, is published by Brick Books.

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