BLASTED Book Review – Jim Bartley

Novel of Extinction

Globe and Mail
November 22, 2008

Jim Bartley, first-fiction reviewer

The opening pages of Kate Story’s debut are vibrant with immediacy. The dream – of a collapsing bridge
and a child’s headless skeleton – gives way to a 6 a.m. phone call answered by the waking Ruby Jones.
Missing the call, she hurls the phone across her Toronto apartment.

An uneasy transplant from St. John’s, she’s hard in love in the Big Smoke. She has been wearing Clyde’s
sweaty T-shirt for four days, but hope is fast fading. Now, “still drunk,” she faces the day obsessing about
her fraught past and botched present, old city and new one, and she’s late for work.

This swirl or emotion and memory and anticipation tumbles forth with acrobatic skill, a blend of galloping
first-person voice, present and remembered dialogue, and expansive visuals.

Pushing 20 and waiting tables of College Street, Ruby has had her heart broken more times than she
cares to count, starting with her parents’ early deaths in S. John’s and now threatening one more casual
abandonment by one more sweet-talking Toronto sex-hound. Clyde, bronzed bike courier, is the latest
thinly veiled jerk. After he casts her aside for a new plaything, a night of drinking with bar buddies dulls
Ruby’s self-recrimination, but doesn’t alter her acceptance that she’ll do it all again. When her boss fires
her for incompetence, she smashes up the bar.

Back at the apartment, licking her wounds, she gets a call from home: Her grandmother has died of a
stroke. It emerges that Ruby was raised by her grandparents after the loss of her mum and dad in a car
crash. Her return to St. John’s opens the novel’s touching, grimly funny portrayal of Ruby and her prickly
granddad, working through their grief in the hillside house overlooking the harbour.

Ruby pauses often to take in the vistas of craggy rock and surging water around St. John’s. She has a
deeply melancholy love for the sea-battered shore of her childhood.

A more nagging passion is her resentment of the carelessly expanding city and its violation of the land’s
raw beauty. Even before she left home, a new highway overpass had obliterated the locally legendary Fairy
Rock, home to ghostly aboriginal forest dwellers. Her sense of being an outsider has long been bound up
with her belief in the lingering spirit of Shanawdithit, also known as Nancy April, last survivor of
Newfoundland’s native Beothuk people.

Part of the novel’s early appeal is in the eerie force of Ruby’s hallucinatory imagination. She sees the
forest fairies and the unquiet spirits in the night; she goes for a walk in the hills and (helped by a killer
hangover) time-trips to other realms.

Wisely, Story makes Ruby a sort of bemused skeptic, but Shanawdithit’s spiritual charge is real to her, part
affirmation and part censure.

As a rebel adolescent, Ruby incited her pals to vandalize the Irish cross atop a church-built monument to
Shanawdithit, but in memory, she now feels that she dishonoured the Beothuk as much as the invading
culture that led to their extinction.

Her return to Toronto unfolds in colourful urban snapshots. Well observed, these passages often seem
little more than that. Midway through the book, with settings well established, do we need a whole page
devoted to Ruby leaving her apartment and buying milk at the local grocery?

Her renewed connection with dissolute friends is engaging, but feels oddly like exposition shifted to the
middle of the story arc. Why didn’t we get to know these close friends at the start?

The real and visionary increasingly dovetail as Ruby goes cold turkey on her nightly boozing. Her days and
nights of delirium, diverting enough in small doses, accumulate to the point where the narrative feels
almost as directionless as Ruby herself.

The final chapters offer more nightmarish visions steeped in Newfoundland fairy lore. At Christmas, family
reconnection comes abruptly. The closing paragraphs bring “dark eyes glittering with rage,” and Ruby’s
“answering rage leaping into life… and with it, fierce love.” Anger melts into hugs and tears. Kate Story
plucks the heartstrings here, but I’ll admit I was fondly recalling the keener edge of her first chapters.

 

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