The Globe and Mail is dazzled by Stunt

By Nikki Barrett
Globe and Mail
May 3, 2008

Tightrope-walking in the dark

Nikki Barrett

May 3, 2008

Claudia Dey, playwright and writer for this newspaper's Group Therapy column, is admittedly fascinated with peoples' interior lives. In Stunt, her debut novel, Dey cracks open the intricate interior life of Eugenia Ledoux, the irresistible nine-year-old narrator who is abandoned by her father, Sheb, portrait artist and collector of birth notices. Convinced that her father did not actually mean to leave her behind with Mink, her self-obsessed professional dancer turned B-movie actress mother, and Immaculata, her death-obsessed sister, Eugenia sets out to make sense of his abrupt departure.

Set in Toronto in the summer of 1981, her journey takes Eugenia away from her home at 101 Dunn Ave., in Parkdale, out to the Toronto Islands and east of the city to meet her past in the Scarborough Bluffs.

There is no shortage of plot and no shortage of spectacle, which at first makes the novel seem overwrought, a valiant yoking of strange and disparate curiosities and eccentricities. Father blows up shoulder pad factory. Father abandons family. Synesthetic nine-year-old daughter searches for father, researches aerialist grandfather, meets treasure hunter on the Toronto Islands, trains in the art of tightrope walking.

But in Dey's hands, overwrought is, in fact, finely wrought, her prose a wondrous compression of poetry, her carnival of characters drawn in gripping detail, and the riot of fantastical yet gritty imagery all shot through with a keen and relentless sadness. The sheer density of the imagery and vivid characterizations makes you slow right down to enjoy every sentence. You want to read this novel carefully; you want to read it again.

One reason you will want to slow down is that elements of the magic slide across the knowable and real in Stunt. Postcards from outer space, imagined missives from Sheb, spangle the novel like poems. And at one point we find out that, after Mink abandons the girls too, the sisters go to bed as nine-year-olds and wake transformed into 18-year-olds. This is a narrative stunt that might make some readers balk. Did these sisters just age nine years overnight? And we're not talking a flash-forward here. Yet, in Eugenia's journey out of grief, this aging seems oddly probable. Who has not aged nine years overnight in the wake of such loss? Just what are the hugely transformative powers of grief?

While Dey's prose teeters evocatively and provocatively between the real and the surreal, one element of the novel that rings out in gritty detail is the setting itself. You can feel the grime of tawdry Parkdale, the shores and shallows of the Toronto Islands. Eugenia's Parkdale is backdrop to a cast of strays and drifters, neighbourhood women such as Meatball Marta and Tuberculosis Flo.

Yet Parkdale herself is perhaps the most resplendent character of all: "Now the highway sits on top of us, a beleaguered crown, turning Parkdale into a tired beauty queen. Feathers in her hair. Crinolines in a knot. She is grand. She is slumped. She is a rooming house with clapboard siding, transoms, cornices and turrets. Her voice is parched and playful. She is all invitation. She will take you in when nobody else will. The sun: her chandelier, her tarnished medal for bravery."

Eugenia's story, very much a night sky of sadness, is, mercifully, stippled with starloads of humour. Dey has tremendous fun with her characters. The portrayal of Eugenia's neighbour, Mrs. Next Door, is especially hilarious: "The twins' mother comes from the Perfect Mother Kit. Our mother, Mink, dared us to find her pulse. Mrs. Next Door could host church. She is the saint of little sandwiches, mending cuffs and gentle scolding. She matches her lawn ornaments. She walks like she is figure-skating. She carries a first-aid kit. She is always calling out the time. Bath time. Suppertime. Homework time. She is the cuckoo bird of mothers, something between a wind-up doll and a wax museum."

Despite Eugenia's pluck and playfulness, and the novel's abundant humour, from the first to the last sentence, Stunt is a howl of grief, a keening, plaintive elegy. At one point, Eugenia wonders, "what is loss but loss split again into more loss?" Indeed. This novel of sadness compressed, abandon distilled, allows us to bear witness to one woman's tightrope walk out of this funhouse of grief. At once hypnotic and dazzling, Stunt is, quite simply, a feat.

Nikki Barrett manages talent at the Lavin Agency. There are currently no tightrope walkers on the agency roster.

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