Winnipeg Free Press Review - Euphoria

Regina playwright's first novel could be a break-out book
Reviewed by: Winnipeg Free Press

This first novel by Regina playwright and short-story writer Connie Gault could be this year's Reading by Lightning, a break-out book set in early 20th-century Canada. Both books are published by prominent regional presses, the Joan Thomas by New Brunswick's Goose Lane, Euphoria by Regina-based Coteau. Both feature strong women characters put into the role of caring for others. Euphoria also bears some resemblance to Bonnie Burnard's new novel, Suddenly, which examines women's relationships in a contemporary setting while giving care.

Euphoria reads like a riff on a Dickensian novel, with not one, but three foundlings. Orillia, the fulcrum for the action, is left in a late 19th-century Toronto rooming house where a servant finds her in swaddling clothes. The baby's mother walks into the lake and drowns herself because the father, too respectable to marry beneath his station, has abandoned her. Shades of Theodore Dreiser! Orillia is adopted by a respectable family, but the servant girl Gladdie is determined to keep an eye on the girl from afar. She follows the family to Saskatchewan when they move at the turn of the century.

Gault moves the action between the 1890s in Toronto, showing what shapes these girls into the women they become, and Regina immediately following the devastating 1912 cyclone. This is a little confusing at first, as the connection between the two stories only becomes clear with further reading. Euphoria differs from standard Victorian fare in that the story focuses on the lives and relationships of girls and women. These women do not escape poverty through marriage but independently through sheer hard work and with the support of other women. Men fare rather badly in Euphoria. They are irresponsible, dipsomaniacs, rapists, child-molesters, rakes and pornographers. Gault takes great care with her settings. She has a flair for providing descriptive images that stay in your mind. These include the image of an entire town moving across the prairie to be close to the railway.

When the floor of the telephone exchange gives way during the cyclone, Gault writes 'then the lights went out and the switchboard died. The girls were left with their arms in the air. It was just as if in the middle of semaphore they'd forgotten the message.' After the cyclone, Orillia is ought directly into the care of Gladdie, who runs a rooming house in Regina with her friend Hilda. The scenes in the house between the three women are some of the novel's most engaging, enhanced by the appearance of a little girl whose parents haven't been found after the cyclone.

We learn more about the character of the women in how they relate to this girl who cannot speak.  The novel is also a meditation on motherhood. Euphoria is a good start for Gault's career as a novelist, though her influences may be a little close to the surface. Her background with the short story and drama provide a solid foundation for her development of character and her excellent use of dialogue. The delight she takes in providing crisp images, encapsulating a moment in the development of the story, is clear and satisfying. Add the research that provides historically accurate detail and you have a fine novel giving the reader a glimpse of what great expectations looked like for women at the turn of the 20th century.

Victor Enns is a Winnipeg writer and the organizer of the Manitoba Writers' Guild Yellow Dog Tavern reading series.

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