It might be a stretch to say that Sandra Beck owes a narrative debt to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, but it’s certainly fair to say that John Lavery’s debut novel builds upon the spirit of that earlier work. Sandra Beck is a book consumed by the idea of ‘two solitudes’ as an abstract concept, the binary that is still so encoded into the Canadian psyche.
Indeed, this is a novel obsessed with binaries, to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all the ones explored within its pages: the division between French and English within Montreal; the split between a daughter and father’s differing interpretations of a single person’s life; the grey area between police and criminals, between law enforcement and entertainment; and even a bifurcation in one man’s memory of how he came to meet the woman that he would come to marry. For such a short novel (just 261 pages), there are so many symbols to decode and mazes of narrative to work your way through.
Sandra Beck is a bizarrely structured novel that focuses on the life of its titular character without actually making her the protagonist. The book has two unevenly sized sections: the first and shorter part is told from the point of view of Sandra’s daughter Josée, written in stunningly clever and elastic-like prose reminiscent of another great Montreal novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals. The second is told from the perspective of Sandra’s husband Paul-Francois (“PF”) Bastarache, who is a police officer and host on a local TV program about policing and crime.
Readers on the hunt for a unifying plot point between these two sections will be disappointed, as this isn’t Lavery’s aim at all. Instead, his book loops around in unconventional ways to explore its deeper themes and abstract concepts. Sandra Beck is concerned with interrogating and destabilizing our preconceived notions of how a novel should be structured, or even begun. Go ahead and read the first two pages of this book and you’ll discover a powerful intellect really trying to screw around with our ideas of what constitutes a stable beginning to a story.
If this all too discombobulating for the average reader, rest assured that Lavery makes up for it with the kindling-like crackle of his prose and his bang-on descriptive prowess. We have powerful images of Josée’s “jury of dolls” lined up in her bedroom, or the insomniac red of an exit sign in a light-night hotel hallway, or this gem of a passage, taken from a scene at an airport:
He was bolstered by this small triumph. And his sense of having been abandoned by his daughter was further mollified by the appearance, at last, of his suitcase breaking through the hanging rubber straps screening the baggage entry. The suitcase wobbled towards him, concentrating on keeping its balance, as though just learning to ride the conveyor.
It might be easy to get lost in the labyrinth that Sandra Beck’s twisting scenes create, but it’s totally worth it if you lend this book a close reading and your fullest attention. Few novels today dare to disrupt our ideas of what narrative can and should do. Fewer still do it as expertly this one does.