It’s no surprise that Connie Gault’s historical novel, Euphoria: A Novel, was shortlisted for the 2009 Book of the Year (Saskatchewan Book Awards). The Regina writer of stage and radio plays and author of two well-received short story collections is one of those (too rare) writers who takes the time to get each book right, and now, with Coteau’s release of Euphoria, Gault’s secured her place as one of Saskatchewan’s most talented.
The structuring of time and place is especially admirable in this novel. The story itself is what’s sometimes referred to as a quiet novel; the focus is on character development rather than a dramatic plot (though the aftermath of the Regina “cyclone” of 1912 does figure prominently). It’s a testament to Gault’s literary finesse that she not only keeps readers interested in the “quiet” lives of these characters who live, work, oversee, and, in the case of Orillia Cooper, convalesce in boarding houses, but that she also successfully shuffles these many lives – forward and back – over decades and disparate locations, without missing a beat.
The author begins with two central characters – Gladdie and Orillia – and as the story progresses and secrets are scraped away, she simultaneously introduces new characters and illumines the lives of those we’ve already met by teasing out the past.
Secrets are at the heart of this story. The initial setting is a Toronto boarding house, and the year is 1891. An illegitimate baby’s born in the house, and immediately after, her teenaged mother “walk[s] off the wharf into Lake Ontario.” Gladdie McConnell, a young employee at the house, is deeply affected by this tragedy, and she’s so concerned with the orphan’s future, she makes it her life’s (other) work to be the child’s surreptitious guardian.
As the story unfolds, we learn much about Gladdie’s own sad life, but to Gault’s credit, the most harrowing bits of this character’s history – between ages 6 and 9 – are suggested rather than detailed. (Sometimes, it’s best to let readers fill in the graphic details; Gault understands this.)
Much of the novel concerns the residents of a Regina boarding house, post-cyclone. Aside from the central figures, there’s Mr. Best, who’s writing a novel about a boarding house; and young Susan, a cyclone survivor found “sitting on the roof of a new Ford automobile …. like a doll who’d been set there, her ringlets still curled, her dress untouched”.
The examination of motherhood, from Mrs. Riley, who “pride[s] herself on having no feelings in regard to children of any age,” including her own; to lonely Hilda, who hopes Susan’s parents will never be located; to the various surrogates, presents a fascinating study. Readers may occasionally feel pity for the book’s hard-working, under-loved women, like Hilda: “On her off days she went to the cemetery and talked to her mother and father in their graves.”
Euphoria is a finely researched document about how unmarried women could and did live during a certain period in Canadian history. Gault’s nominations are earned.
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