Woman recalls her offbeat adolescent experiences
Majority of novel explores the past of protagonist Willa, delving into youthful memories
Professionally, the ancient past fascinates Willa and has long paid her bills.
A retirement-age academic residing in Victoria, the narrator of Eliza Robertson’s fitful debut novel attained a PhD in classics decades before she returned to her hometown.
There, she attends to her mother, who is in 2001 afflicted with advancing dementia.
Willa’s lived past, however, is what animates her story.
Awareness of the 40th anniversary of a boating accident back when she was an undergraduate student triggers a cascade of detailed memories.
The bulk of Robertson’s book — all but the 18 concluding pages, in fact — reflects Willa’s recollection of youthful experiences at a summer house on Salt Spring Island (off the east coast of Vancouver Island, and in1950 a nominal community of farms and vacation cottages) and during an ill-fated trip to southern California in 1961.
Robertson’s singular coming-of-age tale has Willa remembering her close observations of the adult conflicts in her immediate environment — her mother was a sexually adventurous, cocktail-swilling divorcee with minimal interests in mothering and a hot-or-cold romance to manage.
Willa also recalls spending time evaluating her “owlish” self in relation to her “heartbreaker” of an elder sister.
Sexagenarian Willa refers to a “clot of destructiveness” within her psyche, and it along with precocious curiosity, nascent masochism and offbeat sexual experiences step into the foreground of her remembrances.
When Patrick, Willa’s new stepbrother, arrives with his elder brother, pubescent Willa’s entanglements with him catalyze an erotic awakening.
A moody and destructive boy coming across as a young sociopath interested in sadism, Patrick’s designs for Willa are opaque and unnerving. His attraction to her manifests in actions over the six times they meet over a decade that thrill and repulse Willa.
Ranging from inflicted pain and radical dares (involving, early on, Willa defecating into her own panties) to masturbation and (with the tables turned) an incident with clothespins, the engagements are fascinating in a case-study kind of way.
Recalling the sado-masochistic relationships for which the early fiction of Mary Gaitskill and Barbara Gowdy drew much praise, the discomfiting scenes showcase Robertson’s skill at exploring interpersonal dynamics.
At the same time, though, the overall plot draws attention to a story with a less than sure-footed attention to momentum and purpose, especially as they connect to the subdued and pensive woman reminiscing about them four decades later. Brett Josef Grubisic divides his weeks between Salt Spring Island and Vancouver. He’s currently working on his fourth novel.
Eliza Robertson’s coming-of-age story has the protagonist, Willa, remembering her close observation of the adult conflicts in her immediate environment