Saturday, August 29, 2009

Step Closer by Tessa McWatt

Emily is a Canadian writer living in Spain, trying to make sense of what happened between four people who walked together on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. Besides herself, there was Marcus, Emily's roommate of two years, Gavin, a handsome crippled Brit who seemed to know Marcus from the past, and Claire, an American bisexual who was the only one of the four who set out intending to walk a pilgrimage. But all of them were seeking answers.

It happens often that there are ties between books that I read. I've just finished Waiting for Columbus, also set in Spain. The feeling of place comes through more strongly in Step Closer than in Waiting for Columbus. Both novels jump backwards and forwards in time, incorporate multiple narratives and use some experimental ways to tell the story. It was not accidental that Trofimuk mentioned writings by Nathalie Sarraute on Consuela's bookshelf; she is known for transforming the traditional novel's models of character and plot. McWatt has followed in Sarraute's footsteps as well.

Emily obsessively washes her hands (as does one of the minor characters in Trofimuk's book). She tells of her present day rocky relationship with Sam in first person, detailing her struggles with the writing of the story we are reading. She goes back to the events on the Camino four years earlier and to Scotland, 15 years earlier, using third person to relate her imagined accounts of Gavin and Marcus and what lay between them. Emily's deepest search, however, is for her own identity.

"My father is flamboyant. He is a sculptor and an aesthetic gourmand. Paris suits him, whereas my mother prefers the aesthetics of a canoe. That may or may not have contributed to why they are no longer together, but the fact is they made a daughter who would like to be in Paris. In a canoe. Paddling down the Seine at dawn might just be the perfect expression of my complete self."

McWatt's very nuanced portrayal of human interaction reminds me of the British author Sadie Jones (Outcast). So much happens below the surface. Both Step Closer and Waiting for Columbus have a mystery at their core, one that is not unravelled until the end. Canadian fiction at its best.

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