Frances Peck’s debut novel, The Broken Places, about a fictional Vancouver earthquake and the lives it disrupts, takes a hatchet to the trope that those who can’t do, teach. As a writing workshop and university instructor, ghostwriter and editor, Peck spent years teaching the finer points of language and writing to others, and her novel could serve as a wares table for inventive and inviting approaches to storytelling. Peck deftly weds second- and third-person perspectives, flashbacks and flashforwards, epistolary interludes and enough literary amuse-bouches that the form of the novel is as compelling as the content. Whimsical and unflinching imagery also abounds—a seagull making a meal of a starfish, tentacles flailing grotesquely from the bird’s mouth; an unloved wife’s daydream fantasies about the grey-templed stranger next to her, ruined when he crassly picks his nose.
The narrative follows several characters: a blue-collar/white collar couple whose relationship is frayed by infidelity, a Ukrainian immigrant and her elderly ward, and a WASPy married couple and their petulant, recently rehabbed daughter. Apart from all living within range of the earthquake, what binds them thematically is they’re made to confront the truths they’d rather keep suppressed, the lies they live and the “flattening disappointment in making the sensible choice.”
In the first 100 pages, the carefully hidden fault lines of these imperfect and broken people are revealed, as the earth’s fault lines shake with shattering impacts on the city. Once the tectonic tensions ease, there’s a chain reaction in the characters’ lives. Suppressed questions surface: Why am I in this relationship? What is there left for me now? What am I living for?
The quake crumbles these staid, habit-filled lives, leaving the characters to face the implications. “You think certain things are immutable—mountains, marriage, motherhood—that they are what they are and nothing can sway them. Then something does, and you’re left blinking, gasping, in a void that feels more real and true than any solid thing that was there before.”
The penultimate section of the novel is titled “deformation,” the significance of which is explained by a geologist: “Stress is a force that affects an object. Strain is how the object responds to it…. Strain is not a force, but a deformation. Everything in the world—everything in the universe—deforms when subjected to stress.” Juxtapose this with the Hemingway quote from which Peck plucked her title—“The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong at the broken places.”—and you’ll have a sense of where the author wants to take her readers. If this bit of philosophy appeals to you, then the novel will as well.
Andrew Guilbert is a writer and student-at-law in Calgary.