Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
At first, I wasn't sure of the audience that Ottawa poet Frances Boyle had in mind when she wrote her novella, Tower. Was it YA with a focus on teenage girls struggling with their overbearing mothers and eager to spread their wings or was it a pitch to West Coast baby-boomers, like myself, who remember fondly how our friends would venture off to the Gulf Islands or the Kootenays on an altruistic mission to escape crass consumerism? Well, intended or not, the book is a smart bridge that conveniently skips over a generation or two to bring together the children of the new millennium with an earlier generation of pioneers.
Boyle's exceptionally well-written story contains representatives of both generations of readers. Arlys, a sturdy flower child of the seventies, is the surviving member of a farming commune on the coastal island of Perez. Her soulmate, Chris, has finally left her, and she remains an outsider for the island's old-time inhabitants who look down on her hippie-lifestyle. With her youthful beauty now vanished and her hands rough and callous from fieldwork, Arlys is a bitter and childless woman. That is until a newborn is abandoned in the chicory patch of her garden. The child's parents are well known to Arlys: a destitute couple, waifs themselves, who have had more than one run-in with the law and now need to escape from the island. For Arlys, the child is a gift that she never could have imagined, and she puts aside the bitterness of her past disappointments to raise and protect Chicory from all the evils of the world.
Despite her unconditional love for Chicory, Arlys is not able to regain her self-confidence and love herself again. And this limits how she expresses herself to her daughter. Stern, scolding and apprehensive of losing Chicory one day to her natural mother, Arlys curtails the freedom that her child can enjoy. As Chicory enters her teens, her artistic talents emerge and her thirst to see the world beyond Perez grows increasingly stronger. Conflict and rebellion ensue. Eventually, Arlys relents and allows her daughter to attend art school in the city, but under strict conditions. Out of sight and out of mind, Chicory soon flaunts many of the restrictions that her mother has put in place to keep the young girl out of trouble. And this includes Chicory discovering her sexuality with a young paralyzed painter, Torque, who despite his disability has a wild animal magnetism about him that the young girl cannot resist.
Boyle draws on her admirable poetic talent to craft the novella in a deeply lyrical style, making Tower a delight to read. So much so that the obvious trope of an overly protective mother driving her daughter to increasingly risky behaviour is easily overlooked or at least graciously forgiven.
As a child of the West Coast, I can't help but be beguiled by how well Boyle captures the Zeitgeist of an era that marked much of my own youth and still pervades the mindsets of many British Columbians. The urge to escape the economic and societal drudgery of city-living to discover oneself in art and validate one's worth by working the land remains very alive on Canada's western fringe, even if few manage to live out this dream.
Boyle will certainly be a writer to reckon with if the spirit that motivated her to write Tower continues to inspire her to share with readers fiction that dances past the insipid self-indulgent angst so prevalent in CanLit today and brings us to a more uplifting world where the contours of every word written are formed with a sense of purpose and a hint of joy.
Tower is published by Fish Gotta Swim Editions.