Near-per­fect pace

Cen­te­nar­ian run­ner searches for pieces of her past in de­but novel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Melanie Bran­na­gan Fred­erik­sen

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.

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