‘Girl Runner’ by Carrie Snyder
Carrie Snyder is the author of two collections of short fiction. Her inaugural work, Hair Hat, made the shortlist for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction, and her follow-up collection, The Juliet Stories, was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award. Girl Runner is her richly imagined debut novel that explores and reclaims the history of one woman’s struggle to live a life of strength, independence, and competition.
Through the first person narrative of Aganetha—Aggie—Smart, Synder explores the history of women in running in an age when it was believed that a woman’s uterus would fall out during long distance races. It is a story that traces the deep contradictions and challenges of familial bonds and breaks, the mystery of death and mortality, and the hardships of advanced age. It is a tale of deep friendship between women, where men largely occupy the periphery of the plot. Above all, it is a feminist novel that explores the vagaries of reproductive choice and pay equity, among other topics. Synder is not afraid to probe the areas of life that are characterized by emotional ambivalence and ethical and moral ambiguity.
The novel is saturated with death; indeed, Aggie observes, “we are always going to the grave yard.” Mortality, tragedy, and the precariousness of life are always present in the text:
The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.
The structure of her life becomes increasingly precarious as she ages, and obituaries appear in the text with greater frequency as the novel comes to a close. “Who will write my obituary?” asks Aggie in the opening chapter of Girl Runner, making death the novel’s cyclical anchor. Yet, the obituaries embody the grimness of lives summed up in a few spare words, with the most wondrous aspects of life lost between the lines. They scour our lives clean until not even the bodily indignity of death remains:
A reader might find herself confronted, in imagination, by the long naked body of a stranger, prone between toilet and tub, and a reader might not appreciate the vision.
The novel becomes a kind of remedy to the shiny glibness of obituaries in its probing of the dark corners of familial secrets and hidden desires.
For women, death is not the only form of erasure. History becomes a morass of annihilation where women’s achievements in science, literature, philosophy, politics, and sport are drowned out by the triumphant celebration of male accomplishment. Girl Runner stands as a refusal of erasure and resurrects the stories of women in sport. According to Snyder’s interview with Quill and Quire earlier this year, her character Alexandrine Gibb was a woman journalist chronicling the achievements of women in sport in the early to mid-twentieth century, and was the team manager for the first ever women’s Olympic track team in 1928. Aggie and her friend Glad represent the women runners shunted from the history of sport. Like the historical fiction of Margaret George or Stacy Schiff’s historical biography of Cleopatra, Snyder captures a moment in history that was virtually lost to omission or misrepresentation.
With extraordinary deftness, Snyder weaves together the historical and the contemporary to draw her reader into the on-going struggle for reproductive justice. Abortion and midwifery, for instance, are featured prominently in the story. Snyder gives voice to the intergenerational practice of midwifery that not only includes birthing babies, but also the termination of pregnancy. Using herbal abortifacients and abdominal pressure Aggie’s mother, Jessica, helps women end their pregnancies without judgement. Yet the polemics of pro- and anti-choice rhetoric seep into the story as Aggie and her sisters, Cora and Olive, assist with a termination:
“She deserves to be frightened,” says Cora rather breathlessly. “After what she’s done…that girl has a baby in her stomach that she doesn’t want…Our mother is helping that girl kill her baby.”
Yet Aggie remains curious about the woman’s experience, non-judgemental in her inquisitiveness, as she ponders the visible suffering and need of the woman before her, rather than the unseen and unformed “baby” that Cora is insisting on. Synder cuts to the heart of anti-choice rhetoric when Aggie realizes that Cora’s knowledge is actually her unfounded judgement: “you think you know, but you don’t.”
At the same time, Snyder’s treatment of abortion is not unproblematic. Aggie desperately wants to know why her mother chose to “help foolish girls,” without attempting to explore the issue further or to question the classification of “foolish girls.” The only tale of reproductive choice that is fully formed, is one in which the choice not to have an abortion is redemptive. This parallels many popular characterizations of reproductive choice in which abortion is an option, but not a morally viable choice. Yet, the author’s treatment of abortion is more complex than the average abortion narrative in its exploration of emotional ambivalence.
Girl Runner is also a tender, yet honest, examination of motherhood. Snyder teases out the mystery of an intimate, yet distant relationship between mother and daughter as Aggie acknowledges:
I know my mother as part of the flow of the household, part of its noise and bustle, part of the air I breathe. That is how well I know her, and how mysterious to me she is and ever will be.
Yet, the mothers in Snyder’s novel are not characterized by fragility. At the factory where Aggie works it is the patriarch who falters under financial pressure, leaving his wife to tend their legacy:
It is his wife now in charge of the business, and she is hard as stone, because it is her duty to keep what he couldn’t keep safe for her children. Mothers can be hard when is comes to their children.
Indeed, the women of Snyder’s novel are strong and resilient, forging tightly knit bonds with one another. Aggie’s love of her friend, teammate, and competitor, Glad, stands through joy and tragedy, intimacy and detachment, while her relationship with her sister, Fanny, lasts even through death. Refreshingly, romantic heteronormative love is relegated to a subplot.
Ultimately, Girl Runner, is about what lasts and what fades. Like the blurry young woman flashing indistinctly across the front cover, life and history are ephemeral. Synder’s story is a testament to the remembrances that should last.
Anansi | 304 pages | $29.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-1770894327