Calgary-born-and-raised Zsuzsi Gartner made her literary reputation on two award-winning short story collections. Beguiling, her first novel, is thus a long hoped-for event for her many admirers. Gartner’s style, established in her short fiction, is fiery and inimitable, partaking of the real, the surreal and the magical. And so with this novel, which is, in a word, rich—rich in linguistic range and registers, in pop culture as well as classical references, in intellectual and spiritual dimensions. Lucy, the narrator, has been deeply conditioned by Catholicism, and, in the aftermath of a harrowing attack on her cousin Zoltán, which he cannot describe with any reliability, she becomes “some kind of confession magnet,” a “flesh-and-blood Wailing Wall,” eliciting confessions from strangers everywhere she goes. Echoing St. Augustine’s Confessions, there are 13 of these in the novel (spanning 13 years); they include murders, outrageous deceptions, and plants and animals too—a guilt-ridden pug and angry water lilies.
Almost all, notably, are borne out of love in one form or another. Subverting Catholicism, all question what, if anything, punishment has to do with sin. Zoltán is a good guy who suffers an awful fate. Lucy leaves her family when her daughter Pippa is 1, and what happens to a woman who commits that cardinal sin against motherhood? Blessings and curses may be one and the same here. The provoking investigation into these eternal questions of love, sin and forgiveness is contemporary, equally insightful of the local, such as Vancouver’s urban culture, and the global, such as the gap between climate change mourners and deniers that opens—comically—between writers at a festival in Australia and the rich vintners invited to hear them.
The novel’s rewards are on the whole more poetic and philosophical than narrative or psychological. Links between the different confessions and Lucy’s own life start to appear in the later chapters, but their payoff is tenuous, providing scant new insight. In a passage near the end, Lucy recalls Einstein’s words of consolation to a grieving family: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Lucy continues in her own words: “The consolations of quantum physics or the consolations of religion: these are among our limited choices.” After moving forward in time, the story flips to an alternative history, or alternative future. Evidence of the story she has told starts to disappear. Time collapses and reveals that Lucy’s character and destiny, as with all human character, are just potentiality, that a stable identity moving forward through time is perhaps both a consolation and an illusion.
—Jasmina Odor is the author of You Can’t Stay Here: Stories.