Sylvia Fraser’s 1972 novel Pandora had been one of those old, dusty NCL paperbacks that I’d constantly seen kicking around used bookstores for years. I’d always passed it over, mostly because the novel, with its bland, colourless cover, looked rather dull – or worse, dated. But I finally picked it up earlier this summer, mindful of that tired adage about books and their covers.
And boy, was I glad I did. Pandora is a rich, compelling and oddly sublime read – a sturdy, well-crafted novel that captures so many of the tortures of being a young child adrift in an adult world.
The book’s titular protagonist is the improbably named Pandora Gothic, a girl born in 1937 in the fictional town of Mill City, loosely based on Hamilton, Ontario where Fraser herself grew up. Almost the entire of the novel’s narrative revolves around Pandora’s first two years in elementary school, where she observes the cruel and cryptic machinations of both adults and children. Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kakfaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.
The backdrop for all of this is, of course, the outbreak of World War II. With finely tuned satire, Fraser points to the inherent hypocrisy of adults who denounce the brutality of the Nazis and yet cannot refrain from exacting small, quotidian cruelties on each other. This involves a lot of intricate thematic lacing on Fraser’s part. Here’s a sample of how she does it, from early in the novel:
Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, and they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker, who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.
How audacious this satire is, to compare fascist atrocities to the Crucifixion of Christ in such a stylized (and yet childlike) way. But Pandora is chock-a-block with so many of these thematic braidings. They are what compel us through the story, waiting to see how and when Pandora will make the connections between the injustices of the macro world and the injustices in her own backyard.
It’s not all bleakness and torture, mind you. This novel is full of keenly observed detail that will make any reader reminisce about being a curious seven-year-old. Fraser does not give in to the temptation of making Pandora more precocious than she needs to be. But her mind, accessible to us through a brilliant display of indirect third-person narration, is one worth inhabiting for the duration of the book. There are wonderful moments of childhood naivety as well as sharp observations about the human condition.
So don’t be fooled by its dull cover: Pandora is a novel made of sturdy stuff and definitely worth reading.