StarPhoenix/The National Post Review - Euphoria
StarPhoenix/ The National Post
Reviewed by: Bill Robertson
After the Regina Cyclone of 1912, a young woman named Orillia Cooper wakes up in the hospital, her feet and face smashed and no real idea of what has happened and even who she is. But there's a woman there to visit her. Gladdie McConnell has told the nurses a lie, and she feels horribly guilty about it. She's told them Orillia has no family when she knows she has a mother. Gladdie has her own ideas about this mother, about her relationship to Orillia, and about her need to watch over this battered young woman. As for what Orillia feels: "It was hours before she started to fuss about who Gladdie McConnell was and why she loved her.'' And so, over a series of small, back and forth chapters, Regina writer Connie Gault gets her novel Euphoria off to a subtle and enduring start.
In fact, the story evolves in two places and times: Toronto in the 1880s and'90s and Regina in 1912. We begin with the birth of a baby to an unwed mother in a boarding house in Toronto. Mrs. Riley runs her boarding house with an iron voice. She bullies her husband, her boarders, and her few servants, one of whom is Gladdie, who makes this wry observation of her employer: "To Mrs. Riley a thought was not complete until it was said aloud to someone else, and even that wasn't enough. The other person had to agree with it before she could ever let it go."
Into this menage of odd characters comes a young woman seeking to preserve her anonymity and deliver a child. She does, and then walks off a pier into Lake Ontario. Gladdie makes it her mission to watch over the woman's child. She finds the father, and with the same kind of iron in her soul that she found in her employer, she bends him to the task of doing right by his baby. Gault does not overpower her readers by explaining why Gladdie behaves the way she does. She gives us some vague bits of Gladdie's background - a mother figure who was there and gone - an odd family she once lived with and from whom she knew, even as a child, she must escape, and her peculiar way of delivering herself into the care of the Rileys - and then leaves it for us to imagine just why Gladdie needs to help an abandoned child.
And in Regina we see another house run by a woman, Hilda Wutherspoon, who houses Gladdie, an odd fellow named Mr. Best, who says he's a writer, a little speechless girl they've named Susan who's been orphaned by the cyclone, and now the recovering Orillia Cooper. Having established her dual narrative, Gault moves effortlessly between the two times and places, Gladdie McConnell her faithful touchstone who goes forward uncertainly but unwaveringly through a world of moral ambiguities. What gives Gladdie the right to spy on the family that's adopted Orillia? What gives her the right to lie about Orillia's lack of family? And should Hilda be getting so attached to Susan, when her parents may be out there searching for her? Gault's research also pays dividends as she renders us a Toronto both working class rough and upper class pretentious and a relatively new Regina that's been made to doubt its very hold on the earth. The night Orillia is born, the rain pours down so hard it invades all three floors of Mrs. Riley's house. And just when she's gotten away from her adopted mother and into Regina and a job, the cyclone hits and brings her face to face with her longtime preserver. Our lives, Gault reveals, are fragile things, knocked about by the whims of wind and well-meaning. Even a town can pick up and move. But Gault's assured voice and her feel for just the right phrase to help shape a character - "If the world were meant to be perfect, they'd have to leave you out'' - keep the story intact even when buildings blow down and children lose their names.