Given

By Amy Reiswig, February 2013

Susan Musgrave’s new novel illustrates our potential for endurance.

I started reading Susan Musgrave’s new novel Given on the day newspapers announced the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The book’s opening epigraph of “We lose our children not once, but over and over again” (Neil Gordon, The Company We Keep) was, on that day, particular indication that I was in for a heart-squeeze of a read.

Centred around a trio of women, one living and two dead, who met in prison after being convicted of killing their children, Musgrave’s book would be a punch in the gut no matter what was in the news. But the book’s dealing with so much love, loss and grief means it’s open, and benefits from being open, to the importation of each reader’s own emotional experience—threads we pull through the fiction like guide ropes in a dark forest. 

Published by Thistledown Press (November 2012), Given is the sequel to Musgrave’s novel Cargo of Orchids (Knopf, 2000) but is easily read on its own. It begins with the car-crash escape of Musgrave’s unnamed narrator, a 12-year prisoner on death row in the US, during transfer to another facility. She makes her way to the fictionalized BC island of Kliminawhit (which in Chinook jargon means “the lie”) for a kind of homecoming where she reunites with her husband Vernal, the spring-monikered lawyer who drives an old hearse, as well as former prison-mates Rainy and Frenchy, now unshakeable ghosts accompanied by the manifestations of their dead children. 

An emotional first-person narrative, it’s a story of crazy characters and adventures in which getting around Kliminawhit means going quite literally around the Bend, where the narrator helps care for the pregnant addict sister of love-interest Hooker Moon (a man who feeds ravens with a rooftop roadkill feeder). There are also road trips to Vancouver, ghosts in tow, to clean out her dead mother’s empty apartment in a gated community as scary in its soullessness as the urban areas it tries to shut out. Throughout, while not visibly visited by the ghost of her own son, the narrator’s experience of the seen dead underlines her emotional haunting by the absence of her child. 

“There’s nothing you can invent that isn’t happening in the world in terms of aberration,” the red-spectacled Musgrave tells me over honeyed coffee at Murchie’s, “and I know it’s a risk to write this.” But despite that risk—and the long delay wrangling with Knopf, whose editors insisted she edit out the “yuck factor,” before turning to Thistledown—Musgrave felt the need to write the book she wanted. Therefore, she stares dead on, so to speak, at what most of us would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist: addiction, rape, murder, the almost infinite variety of man’s inhumanity to man and the equally various ways people try to cope—often unsuccessfully. For example, the narrator notes that “Rainy’s definition of a good mother was one who left her baby in a dumpster but then had a change of heart.” We also learn that “Normal people, when they burn, they burn with a blue flame. When a heroin addict burns…the flames are green.”

But while the book is filled with dense, dark matter, including graphic brutal imagery, it is, like life, a bizarre blend of the unexpected, including humour amidst the horror. A multi-award-winning poet, essayist, editor, UBC lecturer, novelist and children’s writer (Musgrave’s board book Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug, Orca, October 2012 was named to the Toronto Public Library’s 2012 First & Best Booklist), Musgrave is deft at shifting emotional gears and provides moments of light, light that both highlights and counters the gruesome realities of her characters’ lives. For example, the dead friends provide a Tim Burton Beetlejuice-esque absurdity: Frenchy’s ghost explores the 12-step program AfterLife Anonymous on the Internet and Rainy’s slang-talking spirit sweeps moonlight from the walls and styles her hair into shapes, like a helicopter with moving rotors that Edward Scissorhands would love. Small details, too, elicit smiles, like Aged Orange, the narrator’s old marmalade cat, and Vernal’s moustache experiment which “looked like a caterpillar paralyzed by stage fright halfway across a melon.” 

No stranger to difficulty and controversy in her writing and her own life, Musgrave tackles tortuous subjects with a combination of strength, honesty, compassion, humour and beauty. “I don’t want to preach to people, to say: ‘Open your eyes,’” she tells me. “I don’t write planting [messages]. I just write what is.” 

And what is, in terms of human existence, is the good, the bad and the ugly, and grisly scenes share time with tenderness. Of Hooker Moon, the narrator says, “he looked at me with an expression of such stony sadness I half expected a tear to drop from his eye and bounce across the hood of the hearse like a marble dancing on a drum.” And of a child who reminds her of her dead son, she observes his “eyes that at first looked warm, but which, like little windows in furnace doors, only gave a glimpse of the heat inside.” I couldn’t help but think of Musgrave’s own hard life experiences when the narrator asks, “Was it possible you had to be hurt to see anything at all?” 

“It’s hard to remember where things came from—what’s personal, what’s made up, what comes from things I’ve read,” she admits. “I’ve never had a baby die. I do have a child who is addicted and on the street, but that’s just recent, so maybe it’s a fear thing,” she muses. Now living most of the time on Haida Gwaii, Musgrave says the brutalities of life have left her without much faith, “but I believe in a kind of spirituality that says you try to do good and do no harm.” 

Whether in cities or more rural Gulf Islands, in this fiction or in real life, people share the common experience of suffering—and also the potential for endurance. “People should suffer less than they do,” Musgrave says solemnly. “But we survive things—it’s amazing what we survive.” 

Having taught college trauma literature courses for several years in Montreal, writer and editor Amy Reiswig applauds those who attempt to represent what cannot otherwise hope to be explained.