CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 13. . . .November 27, 2009.
Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 2009.
262 pp, pbk., $14.95.
Teenage mothers-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review by Karen Rankin.
By my third visit to Caleb’s, it was unmistakable –– Chloe was engaged. Instead of feeling like a secretary doing plain old boring filing, she felt like a curator’s assistant at a gallery or museum, doing archiving and cataloguing. I helped her with her work. ……
Caleb was like a ghost, materializing when he wanted to, then disappearing. On my return visit, I explained that I’d come to help Chloe out; recreational filing, I joked. He smiled; I didn’t know if at the joke or the prospect of the work finally getting done.
I was completely fascinated by all the stuff Caleb had collected for possible future use in one of his collages of shadow boxes. There were old greeting cards, letters and postcards, even some from the turn of the twentieth century. I’d trace the curves of the people’s handwriting. And as Hallmark card sappy as it sounds, it was almost like I could reach out and touch the person, feel their presence just by touching their writing and reading their words.
While I was feeding [Caleb’s dog] Frederick roast beef on whole wheat bread, Caleb came over. I stretched it out, wanting to find out how and where Caleb had collected this stuff. All he said was, “It’s amazing what people throw out.”
I was about to see some of Caleb’s completed work. It was on exhibit a few blocks away from Aticus’s [bookstore where I worked]. I was leaning in the doorway of the bookstore, and not in the most agreeable frame of mind.
Chloe pulled up in her mother’s Lexus and I got in. She was all happy, happy, happy, and no surprise why. Yesterday [my employer] John had sent me to deliver a book to one of the residents who lived in the condos above the Hazelton Lanes shopping mall. There in the mall, I’d caught sight of Chloe and Kevin practically doing it on a bench, in sight of anyone with a pair of eyes.
I vowed to bite my tongue …… for now.
That turned out to be easier than I’d assumed. The minute I walked into the gallery exhibition of Caleb’s art, his artwork was the only thing I could think about. The shadow boxes really got to me, more than the collages, though they were good too.
Entranced, I stood in front of each of the boxes, ever so slowly taking them in from every angle. These wooden shadow boxes resembled miniaturized stage sets with a pane of glass in front, museum display case style. Or maybe even a better description might be dollhouses with the front section missing to expose the interior.
It was as if each shadow box was a home and a stage setting for a bunch of objects that wouldn’t normally be placed together. The different objects played off each other, much like in a dream, where the comings and goings of people, images, and events from the past and present made the dream world seem new, and yet familiar, all at once.
It’s six months since 15-year-old Alice’s mother died, and Alice shows no sign of getting over her loss. In fact, Alice’s behaviour is getting worse. She’s been forced to see too many psychiatrists to count. While she continues to work part-time at a second-hand bookstore, she has started
cutting herself and has put a lock on her bedroom door to keep her father Eric –– a wealthy Toronto lawyer –– out. Eric wants to redecorate their house, apparently banishing all traces of his wife. Alice manages to keep some of her mother’s things packed in her closet and in boxes that crowd her room, hence, the lock. Alice knows that her mother was sent against her will to die alone in a hospital. Alice also knows that her mother knew her husband was an adulterer. Through her cousin and best friend, Chloe, Alice meets celebrated artist, Caleb Hamilton. Caleb builds shadow boxes using various keepsakes, depending on his theme. Alice learns how to make her own shadow boxes using her mother’s trinkets. When she learns that her father intends to sell their house and put her either in boarding school or a mental institution, Alice takes on a second job –– inputting data for a fertility clinic –– and plans to move out on her own. Meanwhile, her cousin Chloe has to deal with her mother, Leslie –– sister of Alice’s father. Leslie looks “(with a lot of paid help) like one of those glamour babe models in some Vogue magazine photo layout.” Leslie is always after Chloe to lose weight and get a makeover. Chloe’s parents are divorced. Her dad, Samuel, is kind, wealthy, and supportive, but lives in Hong Kong. When Chloe accidentally gets pregnant, Alice is able to introduce her to Lindy, an infertile young woman she has befriended in the fertility clinic. Chloe has her baby and allows Lindy to adopt it. Alice and her father come to a better understanding of each other. They make their peace and live together in their new home, with Chloe and Uncle Samuel –– who moves back to Toronto –– nearby.
At the beginning of Shadow Boxing, Alice is a believable character. She is lost in grief, “obsessing” over her mother’s anguished last weeks and what could –– or should –– have been done differently. Alice feels that she has no control of her life: she can’t even visit her mother’s out-of-town grave, let alone properly preserve her memories. Alice excels at school and is an art-history enthusiast. Chloe is not as diligent about her studies, has low self-esteem issues, and is also interested in art. A number of peripheral characters are similarly credible; however, Chloe’s wealthy, self-centred mother and Alice’s rich and stealthy father come across as one-sided stereotypes.
The beginning of Shadow Boxing is engaging. Unfortunately, as this contemporary novel progresses, the author’s voice increasingly creeps in, to the point that –– about halfway through the novel –– Alice is no longer a credible character and most young readers would have lost patience with references to people, movies, television shows, and so on from the 1950s to the 1980s. Following are some examples: Alice enjoys watching The Honeymooners and Seinfeld; she says Chloe “could give birth to a Jeffrey Dahmer;” she refers to her Aunt’s boyfriend as “Lothario Len”; in reference to arguments with her father, Alice says, “I needed a time out from our Punch and Judy show.” When Chloe refers to her mother and Len as “Mrs. Robinson and Canadian Gigolo,” Alice needs to explain: I coughed, choked, tried to swallow, sounding like I was gargling mouthwash. “We watch a lot of old movies,” I said. Inept, inane, I knew. But what else was there to say? “I liked The Graduate more than American Gigolo.” No surprise, my little movie critique did nothing to change the vibes.
Alice also has opinions that too often sound like those of a 40 or 50-year-old, opinions on just about everything, from botox to President Bush. Following are two examples: “I hated cut-flowers in a hospital. A plant at least would live.” “Though the war-mongering policies of George W. Bush were no laughing matter, the dictionary-sized collection of his ‘Bushisms’ –– the best comically, the worst linguistically of Bush’s mangling, misspeaking, mispronouncing of words and sentences –– was.”
Shadow Boxing would have benefited greatly from a far more thorough edit. Posesorski’s inclusion of so many opinions, dated references, and asides, slows the novel’s pacing, obfuscates the plot, and erodes the credibility of Alice’s character.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer.
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