Centenarian runner searches for pieces of her past in debut novel
GIRL Runner, the first novel by 2012 Governor General’s Award nominee Carrie Snyder, more than lives up to the promise of The Juliet Stories (2012) and Hair Hat (2004). This is a complex novel — about family secrets, about memory, about love, about lies told to others and those told to ourselves, about running — narrated in flashbacks by Aganetha Smart, whose voice strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and determination, between insight and blindness. When the novel opens, Aganetha is 104 years old, and lives in a small-town Ontario nursing home. “Everyone known to me is dead, buried, departed, gone, x-ed from my life, ties severed, bridges burnt, lost, misplaced,” she observes at the start of the novel. As this observation suggests, part of the work of the novel is the recovery of these lost pieces of life. Although she has been all but forgotten, Aganetha was famous for having won the gold medal in the women’s 800-metre race at the 1928 Olympics. Little, she observes, remains of this feat — only a hidden box of charred medals and a line in the record books bearing her name. It’s not only the outside world that has forgotten Aganetha — she, too, has lost parts of her past. At the heart of Girl Runner is the mystery of what caused the breach between Aganetha’s sister Edith and the rest of the family. Kaley and Max, two young people unknown to Aganetha, arrive one day to take her from the nursing home to her childhood home in order to film a documentary, and are pivotal to this family mystery. Kaley and Max highlight the emotional imbalance of the narrative. The documentary they’re filming, Kaley’s intention to break the Canadian women’s marathon record, the inspiration drawn from Aganetha’s story: all of these seem insufficient reasons to justify their subterfuge in taking Aganetha from the nursing home. Furthermore, Aganetha recognizes them by what they lack: “I gather the clues, apparent and invisible, one by one. This girl and her brother do not know what it means to suffer if they think my sister — Cora — did not. They do not recognize culpability if they think I am innocent.” Without knowing who Kaley and Max are in relation to Aganetha, all of Girl Runner’s weight and all of its urgency is concentrated in the past. Therefore, the present intrudes abruptly on Aganetha’s reminiscences. While this strengthens the authenticity of Aganetha’s narration, this structural imbalance detracts from the momentum of the novel in the opening chapters. Snyder’s novel is at its strongest when Aganetha talks about running — not about her famous Olympic race, but about the way it holds her life together: “I begin to run the old familiar path. No one sees me running. But I do, each step unfolding in my mind, shaking my body, jarring and rattling it, carrying me along. This is what it feels like: a catalogue of dull pain from ankle to shin to knee to hip to shoulder. The breath comes hard at first, rough, but will smooth into a rhythm. And when I’ve been running for a while, only then, the thoughts settle into sense.” This, Aganetha’s last run — the run in which her connection to Kaley is most recognizable — is very like the novel: halting at first, jarring, and finally rhythmic and satisfying.
Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen has a PhD from the University of Manitoba.
She lives and writes in Winnipeg.
Snyder was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 2012.