“So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,
in the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself
until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.”
— from ‘North Point North’, by John Koethe
When I read these lines in Koethe’s poem I immediately thought of Alice Zorn. It’s such a perfect description of how her new novel, Five Roses, is written… all rhythms and patterns, loops, questions and connections that satisfy in surprising ways while leaving us with yet another question we’re only too happy to contemplate until the loops and connections bring us to the next answer. And so on.
It’s a delightful ride.
The story is set in Montreal, in the working class neighbourhood of Pointe-Ste-Charles where Zorn has lived for close to fifteen years. (In the spirit of disclosure may I say that I have the pleasure of calling Alice Zorn a friend, which allows me to confirm that she knows well, and loves, this part of the world. And her humour is delicious.)
“The women in tight skirts standing at the corner of Wellington, leering at the traffic, weren’t waiting for the bus.”
Not only is the story set on her home turf, but this funky ‘hood is pretty much one of the characters—a neglected and, in many ways, unknown part of town. Apparently bus service didn’t even arrive until 1992. A place of historic but crumbling townhouses once home to the workers that built the Lachine Canal, Pointe-Ste-Charles has only in recent years been ‘discovered’ and is still being gentrified. But Zorn has not written about the now. Her interest is in that sliver of time between the 1970’s when the hippies were still there, to the early 2000’s, when life in these increasingly derelict houses just trundled along, when police avoided the area and “People… knew to ignore what didn’t concern them.”
And the people are as richly drawn as the ‘character’ of place. One man “…chewed gum with his front teeth.” In another case “A comma of shaving foam hung from one earlobe.”
In a tiny but telling scene, a woman rides her bike to a corner shop, outside of which sits an eccentric old man in a battered kitchen chair. “She said hello so he would know she knew he was there and expected him to watch her bike, which she leaned against the storefront.”
No words are exchanged yet the moment says so much about the community that exists here and the importance of knowing how to navigate it.
Of course not everyone knows the rules of navigation and part of the happy trip of reading Five Roses is being privy to the learning process, watching the naifs and the newbies try to ‘get it’.
Fara and her husband are two such newbies. They’ve purchased their first home, thrilled with the bargain price. The catch is that a former resident hung himself in the front room. Not a detail easy for anyone to overlook but, for Fara, it serves as a constant reminder that her sister also killed herself several years before, something she has yet to come to terms with, the guilt of the survivor. “… it wasn’t ghosts that haunted people. It was memories.”
There is Maddy, who we first meet in the 70’s when, as a naïve teenager, she finds herself living with hippies in a Pointe-Ste-Charles flophouse where “…They weren’t homes but steps toward homelessness.” The hippies ultimately leave but Maddy stays, eventually owning the house and working as a *baker at the nearby Atwater Market. It all sounds nice enough but survival, unlike so much in The Pointe, doesn’t come cheaply and she’s made some hard choices over the years.
Last, is Rose. Named for the iconic Farine Five Roses sign. A young woman raised in a cabin in the woods north of Montreal. (Who even imagines woods north of Montreal?) She comes to the city, a complete innocent, totally unfamiliar with ‘society’, hardly able to converse; her greatest comfort being time spent weaving on a loom back at the cabin (a loom she eventually moves to an empty factory she uses as a studio; squatting is big here). One of my favourite lines, a playful adaptation of Woolf: “A loom needs a room of its own.” (And there is a stunningly beautiful description of weaving that I can not now find… but will add when I do.)
The women well represent the burden of secrets and private lives that each of us carries. Meanwhile the neighbourhood, The Pointe, where it’s assumed there are secrets (what’s life without secrets?) is a mecca of mash ups and messed up lives within which a unique community is formed. Both the women and the neighbourhood share a history of harshness, yet there’s forgiveness at the same time. Whatever you call it, there’s comfort there once you accept it, and it accepts you.
The book reminds me that every kind of neighbourhood, no matter how unassuming, has its own vibe and perhaps even draws a certain kind of person to it for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s so the person can give something to that particular place, other times it’s because they need to receive something that could come from nowhere else.
I like walking around neighbourhoods, seeing how they’re laid out, where do people buy bread, how far is it to the library? I like getting a glimpse of life through the windows and wondering who lives there and who lived there before. It’s less the way a place looks that strikes me as how it feels. And this is what Alice Zorn does— she takes the reader by the hand and says see this house, this street? Let me tell you the story of it. And it’s not a story you hear or even read so much as feel.
You know an author has done her job when you close the book and for a while you continue to wonder what the characters are getting up to, you miss them a little, that guy in the kitchen chair (is he still watching bikes?)…
So, yes, if there’s ever a Five Roses walking tour, sign me up.
* Not incidental that before moving to Montreal, Zorn worked at a Toronto bakery where, among other things, she learned to make creampuffs. In a promotional postcard for the book she shares a recipe that must not be missed. (I don’t even bake and they were flawless.)
—Five Roses can be ordered on-line from Blue Heron Books.