RISKS worth tak­ing

Thomas in a cat­e­gory of her own with lat­est novel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

AFTER fin­ish­ing Joan Thomas’s lat­est novel, The Open­ing Sky, I im­me­di­ately went out to find her oth­ers — the break­out Com­mon­wealth Prize-win­ning Read­ing By Light­ning and 2010’s Cu­rios­ity. The Open­ing Sky is the most quintessen­tially Win­nipeg of the three. It tells the story of a fam­ily: Ai­den Phimis­ter, a hip, mid­dle-aged ther­a­pist, his wife Liz, an A-type pro­fes­sional with a pen­chant for throw pillows, and their daugh­ter Sylvie, 19 years old, pas­sion­ate about global is­sues, and pas­sion­ately in love with her se­ri­ous boyfriend Noah. Ten­sions among the three are var­i­ous and shift­ing, but reach a tip­ping point when a per­sonal cri­sis throws a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent in Sylvie’s com­pli­cated child­hood into sharp re­lief. Thomas is of­ten com­pared to Carol Shields, Meg Wolitzer and Jonathan Franzen, but re­ally slips into a cat­e­gory by her­self here. The Open­ing Sky does not per­fectly bal­ance its wealth of psy­cho­log­i­cal and fam­ily ten­sions, but it comes close. The Phimis­ters are what you might cau­tiously call a “typ­i­cal” Wolse­ley fam­ily — con­cerned with so­cial jus­tice and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, they are in­vested in the life of the neigh­bour­hood, even as they re­sist any kind of ab­so­lutism: “Ai­den... was em­bar­rassed by Wolse­ley’s earnest­ness, the book­store full of crys­tals and tarot cards and Ti­betan prayer flags, the women ly­ing down in the street to stop Malathion trucks from rolling in when the city wanted to fog for mos­qui­toes.” How­ever the fam­ily might re­sist pre­scribed at­ti­tudes, a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion trou­bles the pages of The Open­ing Sky. When the city cuts down the Phimis­ters’ dis­ease-rid­den elms, Ai­den re­treats to his bed. He cher­ishes Ger­ard Manley Hop­kins’ ap­proach to na­ture, ex­pressed in the lines of God’s Grandeur (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shin­ing from shook foil...”) and the death of the trees nec­es­sar­ily stands, for Ai­den, as a sym­bol for other losses in his life. Some of the con­flict in The Open­ing Sky stems from Ai­den’s need to es­cape his own fam­ily, his at­tach­ment to a re­mote cabin that has been a sore spot with Liz for the whole of their mar­ried life. Alone on the is­land years be­fore, Ai­den had slept out­side on the rocky ground: “ly­ing on that gran­ite slab, he was stoned by won­der at the faith­ful ro­ta­tion of the Earth and the per­fec­tion of a day washed with light by a sun that hadn’t even risen yet.” But Liz’s fraught re­la­tion­ship with her hot-blooded, beau­ti­ful daugh­ter is per­haps the most painful of the many ex­plored in The Open­ing Sky,S and high­lights Thomas’s prin­ci­pal achieve­ment in the novel — her abil­ity to stay faith­ful to thet in­de­pen­dence of her three cen­tral char­ac­ters’ per­spec­tives. She dives deep in­toin the in­te­rior livesli of each, but mes­sagesm be­tween them are never prop­erly com­mu­ni­cated or fully un­der­stood. In this way, the Phimis­ters op­er­ate like any fam­ily, strug­gling and of­ten fail­ing to love each other un­con­di­tion­ally through im­pas­si­ble emo­tional bar­ri­ers. Thomas’s writ­ing taps sub­ter­ranean reg­is­ters of feel­ing. Her char­ac­ters toy with a dan­ger­ous ques­tion: Is love worth any per­sonal risk? In one of the book’s most pro­found mo­ments, while Liz waits for Ai­den to swim the dis­tance from his is­land to the dock on the main­land, her care­fully sub­merged care for her hus­band breaks the sur­face of her per­fectly main­tained in­de­pen­dence: “He’s a dark an­i­mal mov­ing through lu­mi­nous wa­ter — she will never be that free. Her love for him floun­ders in her chest. Speak your heart, she says to her­self. He clam­bers up onto the dock, wa­ter pour­ing off his thighs and black­en­ing the wood, and she hands him a towel. ‘Ai­den,’ she says.” This is not a per­fect novel — just as her char­ac­ters take risks in love, Thomas her­self takes nar­ra­tive risks with The Open­ing Sky, and of­fers no typ­i­cal so­lu­tions. But th­ese risks are the most beau­ti­ful; they are the risks worth tak­ing. This is a book worth read­ing. Juli­enne Isaacs is a Win­nipeg­based writer and ed­i­tor.


On the sur­face, fam­ily dy­nam­ics are front and cen­tre in Thomas’s lat­est novel.

The Open­ing Sky

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