28 October 2009

by Britt Holmström
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Sandy Bonny
$21.00 ISBN-13 987-1-55050-395-1

Britt Holmström’s fourth novel Claudia moves along the fine boundaries of appearance and private truth. An upper middle-class widow living in Regina, Claudia Hewitt has framed her life perfectly. Childhood poverty in Sweden with her Latvian refugee mother is far behind her, as are the embarrassments of her ‘too big’ nose and adolescent chubbiness. Her grown children’s mishaps are glossed by white lies, and Claudia has carefully protected her family and aging mother from the fact that she has witnessed three brutal murders – first as a teenager in Sweden, later while backpacking in Spain, and finally from the window of her beloved husband’s study in Regina. Does bearing witness make her complicit in these tragedies? Does her silence? And what secrets, out of love or fear of judgment, have Claudia’s mother and children kept from her?

Claudia is written in a world where violence is inevitable, where female sexuality can corrupt and degrade as well as empower, and where love can nourish healing. Moving backward and forward in time, and between Winnipeg, Regina, Sweden, Spain, and Latvia, ‘Claudia’ covers a lot of ground. Details of place and era are well researched, often drawn from Holmström’s global experiences, and the narrative flows naturally throughout. This book is a meditation on relationships and identity, and challenges readers to examine their own lives alongside Claudia’s.

Claudia could be a heavy read, but the grittier details of this novel are readily offset by flashes of humour, beauty, and hints of magic. A cousin’s child, scarred by forced prostitution, regains confidence not through counseling but by mocking Jerry Springer TV. Claudia’s nose job inadvertently heightens her sense of smell, leading her to her husband, Simon, and allowing her to investigate the personalities of her children’s partners by their scents. Claudia’s mother, Malda, sheltered her by remaining silent about the horrors of pre-WWII Latvia, but in doing so left Claudia a minimal sense of family history or cultural identity – can it be a coincidence that Claudia’s great grandfather comes to both her and her grandson’s dreams, leading them beneath the tender green branches of Latvian lindens to a cozy ancestral cottage that both mistake for heaven? Or that, hours after Simon’s death, the cactuses in Claudia’s kitchen bloom bright, beautiful and out of season? In Holmström’s Claudia, despite and perhaps because of heartbreaking sadness, happiness can always be found in the details.


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