Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Winnipeg author Méira Cook's latest novel is woven with relentless humour and a sense of passing sorrow. Candidly, the book is not an easy read. And many of its rambling passages require more than an ounce of forbearance. But in its ensemble Once More with Feeling is a deeply satisfying work of fiction, which elevates Cook to the top echelon of Canadian writers.
The novel begins with Max Binder, an absent-minded professor, deciding to give his wife, Maggie, what she wants most in the world. This gift for her fortieth birthday is both peculiar and unexpected, and tempts the Fates to play their mischief. Its discovery in the misunderstood circumstances of Max's sudden death results in Maggie's unrelenting scorn of him and the unravelling of the Binder family. As Maggie attempts to deal with her anger, we are introduced to her universe of friends, acquaintances and colleagues, all with their own stories to tell.
The plot is told through a plethora of points of view, and it is not always easy to keep track of who is who. Among the most memorable characters is Max's son, Lazarus (Lazar to his friends). Smart, observant, cynical, the fifteen-year-old shares with us his observations of the hot but mean girls in his high school, his loopy friends and the many off-kilter adults around him. No one escapes unscathed from Lazar's biting humour. Sarcasm is something that Lazarus shares with his mother, Maggie. But hers degenerates into pure anger after the “gift” incident. Sams, short for Samson, is the last member of the Binder family. Older than Lazar by three years, Sams wanders through the story as a somewhat autistic individual with a love for classic films. While an interesting character, he is the least accessible to the readers.
Much of Cook's writing is about the life cycle of misfits. One of her characters, Dee Leblanc, is a somewhat overweight flat-chested girl with divorced parents. Fitting in is more than an uphill struggle despite being allow to posse with the really cool, albeit condescending girls in her high school. So when Katsumi, a hot kick-boxing instructor at her father's gym, who by the way is probably doing Dee's dad, befriends the fifteen-year-old, Dee goes along for the ride. Katsumi or Kat, ten years older than Dee, is a rebel with a huge sex drive who likes to wear catch-a-predator schoolgirl clothing. She is everything that Dee is not. After shop-lifting in a sexy lingerie shop, Kat collides into into an old man with a walker, and splits the scene, leaving Dee to apologize. A surprising bond emerges between Dee and the old man when he offers her a cigarette. She quickly finds there is more personality to him than the walker would belie.
Nathan Miller, the director of a mainly Jewish summer camp, is another of Cook's misfits. As he closes down Camp Beaver for the season, he reminisces about his own childhood vacations in it. The chapter is replete with teenage boy-girl sexual fantasies and dalliances, which Nathan never gets quite right. When the delicate Molly Leibowitz shows interest in him, he fumbles, and now thirty years later, he is bogged down in a dysfunctional relationship with Riva, a crude woman obsessed with garlic.
Cook's world is a blend of Jewish, Ukrainian, Metis and other residents of her unnamed prairie city, which is obviously Winnipeg given the numerous geographical clues in the novel. The Jewish element is the central thread in many chapters, and some of this deals with inter-generational relations in the Jewish community, including the impact of the Holocaust. Still, Cook finds the time to include in the novel social issues like missing women, the homeless and bigotry toward native Canadians. The Binder family, with a Jewish father and gentile mother, cements this inclusiveness.
Although many readers may opt to off-ramp when hit with the more lengthy passages about the less memorable characters, those who read the novel to the end are in for a treat. The last two chapters are particularly poignant, bringing the story of the ill-fated Binder family to a very satisfying conclusion.
Once More with Feeling is published by the House of Anansi.