Oh, this book isn't just about white people.
Oh, this book isn't just about white, straight people.
Oh look, incest. Whore houses. Important characters die early. Etc.
I like the unexpected in my fiction. So why am I not buying it?
Fall On Your Knees is a mother of a book so I'm going to make things a tad easier on myself and tell you five things that blew Fall On Your Knees out of the water and five things that buried it.
I have a lot of love for this book because of...
- The characters. MacDonald is a vivid storyteller. By the end of the book Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances and Lily were walking, talking people in my brain, not just someone's fantasy on a page. The dialogue between them as children is funny and tender and is true to how kids actually speak. MacDonald, as narrator, doesn't intrude too often upon the story; the characters seem to practically spin their own lives.
- Black and white morality is eschewed. No one is absolutely good in Fall on Your Knees and even when they are horrible, MacDonald still leaves room for some essential goodness. I have a love-hate relationship with this because the concept is a Catholic one - we all have original sin but we are also all able to repent our sins to God and plead for his forgiveness. James, the father of the family, commits heinous acts but he also bends over backwards to provide for his family amid chronic poverty.
- It trumps expectations. MacDonald knows that families are weird and the ties that bind us are likely darker and more fraught than we'd like to think. One moment Frances and Lily are children playing dolls together and the next Frances is inviting Lily to suckle her leaking breasts. When we live with and love our own flesh what boundaries are healthy and what boundaries must we sacrifice?
- It trumps expectations, again. Fall On Your Knees doesn't play out like a cliched Canadian Heritage Moment - it contains the experiences of a variety of cultures and classes. For one, I haven't read too many other Canadian books about Middle Eastern families living Down East. Or Jewish families. The novel is a brilliant picture of our rich immigrant heritage and while it may be heavy, there's a refreshing amount of humour and love contained in these pages, too.
- The last 100 pages. It's practically a novella unto itself, partially because it's set in New York City and also because the focus is tighter and the tone is different - dreamier, lush. The rest of the book is fairly grim, laden with superstition and ill consequence. No one gets off scot-free in Fall On Your Knees ("...nothing in life is not mixed") but by the end MacDonald allows us to dream that this could be so and oh what a lovely dream it is.
- The language. Holy Mother of God, the language. MacDonald's prose is beautiful but there is just so much of it. If there is one adjective there is five to accompany it. If an idea is formed no space is spared to expand upon it. The story is almost enveloped by words and I became frustrated as I felt I had to skip past paragraph after paragraph just to get to the meat of the thing. Example (brackets contain my own words):
Kathleen is an abandoned mine. [Not just that but...] A bootleg mine, plundered, flooded; [for example...] a ruined and dangerous shaft, stripped of fuel, [AND] of coal, [ANDAND] of fossil ferns and sea anemones and bones, [OH DON'T FORGET AND..] of creatures half plant, half animal, and any chance that any of it might end up a diamond. [This whole paragraph was just an elaboration ON THE FIRST SENTENCE!]
- The length. Endless words means endless pages and Fall On Your Knees has a forest's worth of them. Can someone please tell me the significance of Frances' dalliance with her uncle's whorehouse and then that whole business of getting pregnant by Ginger? To me, the backbone of the story was the tension between James' unalterable desire to sin and Kathleen's fruitless struggle for independence from him. I understand having layers but there are far too many diversions at work here
- The setting. If you weren't of the notion before that Cape Breton was once a god forsaken rock dogged by superstition, poverty and small-mindedness, Fall On Your Knees won't bother convincing you otherwise. The atmosphere of the book is claustrophobic with the depressive nature of life on that island. I could feel the grit in my hair, the sting of salt in my eyes, the bitter rumours whispered, the enduring gray sky and lashing roil of the sea. MacDonald doesn't bother making the place romantic and kudos to her for that but 500 pages of this business is rather taxing. Maybe February is a bad time to be reading this book.
- The last 100 pages. I'm of mixed minds as to the decision to delay uncovering what really happened to Kathleen in New York City until the end. On one hand, it parallels nicely with the unraveling of the family and it makes for an explosive uncovering of the truth. On the other hand, the tone is vastly different from the rest of the book - I'm not sure if 'more adult' is the right word here but the rest of the book does focus largely on the siblings as kids/teens.
- The lack of take-away. In the end, I'm not sure what the book is saying. So we have here a big sweeping portrayal of Canadian 20th century history, issues of race and class and sexual identity and a portrait of a family over several generations. And a story. A big fat can't-put-it-down story. Supposedly what the book really leaves us with is an honest portrayal of emotion. So why am I left untouched? Tell me in the comments below why (or why not) this book got you in the gut.