if you lie down in a field, she will find you there

24 January 2024

If you lie down in a field, she will find you there
by Colleen Brown
Published by Radiant Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00 ISBN 9781989274941

Colleen Brown’s If you lie down in a field, she will find you there underscores that “perception is everything”. The Ontario-raised writer and artist’s memoir contemplates the mystery of her mother via disparate childhood memories and family vignettes, many of which are recalled by Brown’s much older siblings. In delivering these random remembrances, Brown effectively gives the woman’s “perfectly human and unremarkable” life the warm spotlight it deserves; this comes in stark contrast to the “death porn” the media spouted after her mother’s murder by a serial killer. The book is a construction, “a way to make sense of a life,” and it bucks against the “narrative pull” associated with writing about violence. Don’t expect a straight line or an ordered chronology. Do expect to be engrossed by this jigsaw of a memoir that’s often poetic, frequently philosophical, and presents a yearning for “wholeness”.

Brown was eight when her mother, Doris, died “suddenly, out of sequence, shockingly and violently”. The killer’s confession came two years later, and he’s been in a psychiatric institution since 1978 under a “not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder” ruling (reviewed annually). There are no details about the wheres and hows of the tragedy. As Brown—a visual artist currently in Maple Ridge, BC as the 2023-26 Artist-in-Residence—explains: “My mother’s life and death must be held separate for her life to exist as a story.”

This non-narrative is located in and near Guelph at “the House, the Cottage, the Store,” and these settings provide a loose frame from which the everyday-type memories hang. The author’s sister, Vicky, remembers that Doris used Nivea cream to wash her face. Pages later, Vicky also recalls that their mother “always washed the floors on hands and knees”. Brother Jim relays how Doris “had a little difficulty driving sometimes, particularly on the country roads,” and there is levity in recollections of her driving mishaps. Jim’s next contribution to the collective story is about the family’s dog having puppies. “Mom was so happy with those pups,” he says, and siblings Laura and Colleen build on this anecdote with their own memories about the family’s animals. But it’s not all sweetness. Jim also recalls their father having Doris committed to “Homewood,” and the author writes “I learned that husbands putting wives into mental institutions was popular at the time”. The “post-war, upwardly mobile family” ran a sporting goods’ business that afforded them a succession of homes, from “an apartment above the store” to a “big place in the country”—but they lost the business.

This beautifully-produced book’s many subjects include feminism, mental health, and forgiveness. Front and centre, however, are the memories of a mother the author “did not know existed”. Brown writes with an artist’s sensorial discernment about the domestic—the chenille bedspread, the new mixer with the “glossy mustard base”—and the natural world—rain “pointing in the dust and sand”—and in curating these various details and anecdotes, she greatly reduces the “dark matter” her family’s experienced.


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