Reviewed by John Delacourt
Memory and identity. For any author who takes up such weighty working materials, they present thematic possibilities that can test the mastery of craft – for better or worse. For Judith McCormack, the author of the luminous new novel The Singing Forest, memory and identity work in thematic counterpoint like a Bach fugue, enriching the complexity and depth of a story shaped by one war criminal’s past, and a young lawyer’s coming to terms with her own buried history in her efforts to bring this man to justice.
The man in question, Stefan Drozd, is first introduced to us as one of those obscure ciphers whose alleged genocidal crimes would appear in news stories in the eighties and nineties here in Canada, as the Soviet empire crumbled and war records were unearthed. Drozd emigrated to Canada decades before the acts of murder he carried out in Stalin’s bloodlands were quite literally unearthed back in Belarus. The discovery of a long-buried skull in a forest is the precipitating event that sparks the rusted gears of an investigation to lurch forward in Toronto.
The case is taken up by Leah Jarvis, a young lawyer who’s just finding her footing. McCormack gives her to us on the page with a few quick strokes that deftly hint at how Jarvis’ wrestling with the question of identity and memory will test her - and define her through her own trials of character.
“She is sitting at a counsel table now, a quizzical face, smooth skin, a flood of dark curls down her back. Askenazi hair, says her aunt. Strands of DNA sliding down an ancestral ladder. Although genes can hardly be blamed for a headful of disorderly thoughts, a rueful laugh.”
Virtually everything we will come to learn about Jarvis is sounded there in those few sharp strokes.
And wisely, even though the stakes of the drama are evocative of a crime thriller - the ingénue lawyer versus the criminal who’s concealed his guilt for most of his life – McCormack is less interested in taking us through the predictable plot points that will lead us to a verdict. She takes us somewhere more interesting, to a deeper understanding of that mysterious, central question of whether character is indeed something like destiny.
Where that precision and that deeper vision into this theme truly serves her best is with her treatment of Drozd, the old man whose guilt is never really in question throughout the narrative. McCormack’s own background as a lawyer could arguably account for how she is able to resist all the clichés of villainy in her portrayal of a man who’s aged with the iron of violence in his soul, poisoning every possibility of love and true connection available to him.
However, it’s her writer’s instincts and technique that are unerring; she reinvigorates the close third as she telescopically narrates Drozd’s years in Toronto working in a glass bottling plant, the violence he metes out on his wife and his powerlessness to understand this force within him. The sentences contract, into sharp declarative stabs, as she takes us inside the horror of his brutality:
“This is your fault, he says.
What was her sin? She bought a dress without asking him first. Without his permission. A bleak rage overwhelms him.”
How perfect is that choice of “bleak” to describe such evil?
Yet there is nothing bleak or drained of life in The Singing Forest, despite such harrowing scenes. The energy of the prose does not falter, transcending the expectations – if not the limitations - of a crime drama. The interiority of Leah Jarvis’s transformation in the narrative lacks some of the tonal variation and visceral impact of the chapters devoted to Drozd, but she ultimately achieves a balance of darkness and light that, aptly enough, rhymes with something like justice.
Which is fitting, because the scope of McCormack’s ambition is nothing less than a poetic meditation on the mutability of identity, and with The Singing Forest, she succeeds.
The Singing Forest is published by Biblioasis.