‘After Alice’ by Karen Hofmann
Yielding and unyielding, barren and fruitful, rocky and rich—the qualities of land form a foundation for After Alice, Kamloops, BC writer Karen Hofmann’s first novel (she has also published a book of poems, Water Strider).
In Alice, the land is sometimes “scattered with dead and dying pines, blocking the light,” sometimes “draped with … orchards, the fruit trees so well adapted to the surfeit of sun.” In the orchards, “the trees [stand] in their rows, pale green and white, like lace tossed on a lawn.” In the lakes dotting the landscape, “the water in the evening light waves green and gold.”
The landscape of BC’s Okanagan Valley is central to After Alice—it doesn’t become “another character in the story,” as the cliché goes, but in countless ways informs the psychology of this lovely, moving novel.
Sidonie von Täler, a respected academic with a mind as lean as her figure, has retired to her Okanagan Valley roots after several decades in Montreal. In her absence, the family orchard has complexified into a partially-productive, rich but neglected system—much like her family. As Sidonie sorts through boxes of family relics and negotiates the stewardship of the land with her querulous, troubled relatives, she is beset by memories.
Most of these involve Alice, Sidonie’s long-deceased older sister, and the community of her youth, comprised of the upper echelons of 1950s and 1960s land-owning society, blue-collar town families, and in a still-lower social sphere, migrant workers living, symbiotically, near the orchards.
Alice is best seen from the side, through Sidonie’s truncated memories, which remain sympathetic no matter how problematic or incomprehensible Alice’s behaviour. Sidonie, it seems, has always been an angular shadow in the background of Alice’s beauty, Alice’s romances and drama. As a child, Sidonie is virtually unseen by those around her until she escapes to the lights of Montreal. But in the novel’s present, Sidonie begins to materialize, mainly through her dealings with the landscape, until she has become the beating heart of the novel. On her daily walks around the lake, she looks and looks at the trees:
She had forgotten their names, had not thought of them all of these years, and here they are on her tongue. They are bare-branched now, silver and taupe and wine-barked … They have small, sparse leaves, unprepossessing flowers, dry, bitter berries. But now, just as it sets, the sun ekes through the low-lying cloud, and the shrubs are suddenly touched with subtle colour, silvery-sage-green and plum-red, stark and lovely, in their narrow branches, as etchings.
It’s a mark of effective descriptive writing that the reader can stay immersed in long passages without wishing to surface. Paced to the tempo of an afternoon walk, After Alice is densely textured with sensual language that brings the Valley to life, makes it palpable, habitable even in BC’s grey winters.
The novel’s structure relies on constant references to Sidonie’s past via her memories, but transitions between past and present action are barely-there or nonexistent. At one point early in the novel, Sidonie reflects that to the young, the past is a “foreign country, clearly demarcated.” But when you are middle-aged, “time begins its collapsing trick and you realize that the past, even the distant past, is just next door.” Throughout the novel, Hofmann immerses the reader in Sidonie’s memories, to the point where the dividing lines between past and present are often imperceptible—like the line of the horizon over the ocean, the colours washing together. Sometimes, Sidonie’s mental movement into the past only becomes evident through tonal shifts, but there’s a suppleness to Hofmann’s writing that makes the lack of demarcation permissible: one begins to believe less and less in the necessity of transitional language at all, when the past is so present in the mind.
A key theme in Alice, obviously, is memory; another is the role of choice in configuring one’s destiny. Sidonie is a psychologist in dialogue with her own life choices—whether she has acted correctly or not in the past is of deep import to a person who has always moved inevitably, implacably forward once she’s made a decision.
Sidonie’s philosophy is that life is stochastic, or non-deterministic.
To be whole; to see wholly; those have always been her goals. But how often in her stochastic approach has she missed the mark? It is not good enough: there is not time for this, now. She must learn to listen, to be still and listen. To get it right. On the other hand (and there is always, it seems, another hand), the stochastic is perhaps all there is. There is no knowing; all that can be hoped for is that something will hit the mark. Or perhaps there is no mark, no centre: and where the arrows hit most must be declared the intended bull’s-eye.
Even such a claim on the arbitrary nature of choices, articulated by Sidonie to Sidonie in an extended passage of memory-description, can be productively called into question by the novel’s “no knowing,” its circling and re-circling back on familiar ideas. On every pass there is potential to see them in a new light, frame them differently in the imagination. Family can inflict deep wounds, but remembered conversations can be healing. Friendships assumed lost are sometimes only dormant, waiting for awakening. Roots may struggle but grafts can take. Choices can be redemptive.
Regardless of its headier passages or carefully-weighted dramatic moments, After Alice is essentially a novel in conversation with the land, which is as formative of the people who work the soil in the Okanagan Valley as it is of the trees themselves. For the beauty of its narrative descriptions, but also for many other reasons, After Alice deserves a place among the best of new Canadian literary fiction.
NeWest | 312 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927063460