Edmonton writer Dolly Dennis’s second novel, The Complex Arms, tracks the lives of an eccentric coterie of characters who comprise a tenuous community of renters in a four-storey walk-up in the city’s Mill Woods suburb in the 1980s. The novel’s linked stories cohere around Adeen, an anglophone single mother of a daughter with a disability who is lured to Edmonton from Montreal by the promise of a better life and the dream of owning a home. This was a feverish time when, like Adeen, “the world seemed to be migrating to Alberta”—to cash in on the oil boom and to escape war and persecution around the globe. Mill Woods, conceived and built in response to the housing shortages of this tumultuous time, is the setting for the novel’s exploration of the impact of big systemic forces on individual lives in a young settler city.
When Adeen arrives in Edmonton in 1982, the prime interest rate had reached 21.5 per cent and inflation was soaring, crushing her dream of home ownership. Adeen marries a deadbeat, ersatz cowboy and settles into managing a jerry-built apartment building at the southeastern city limits. Adeen is clear-eyed about the history of displacement of Indigenous people from what would eventually become Mill Woods, and she doesn’t fall for the “marketing drivel” of urban planners, but she does come to make a home there. Exhausted by caring for her daughter, Adeen still manages to form a kind of chosen family with her tenants. Among this cast: a dumpster-diving, apocalypse-threatening Jehovah’s Witness; an elderly survivor of incest caring for a dying husband; a cross-dressing artist manqué; a teenage boy who escapes to “The Pits” in the nearby ravine to find peace. It can be a tough place, but Adeen’s self-acknowledged vulnerability opens her to non-judgmental support for her tenants: “Everyone goes mental eventually, don’t you think? Humans are so fragile.”
The novel alternates between Adeen’s first-person voice and an omniscient third-person point of view, a narrative choice that gives the story scope and depth. While Adeen tries to nurture civility in her oddball community, larger weather systems—psychic, socioeconomic and meteorological—simmer into a foreboding gathering of tragedy that erupts in the Black Friday tornado of July 31, 1987, which tore through Edmonton, killing 27 people. Some of the novel’s best writing shines in the description of this cataclysmic event.
The novel continues its conflation of relational dysfunction and climate crisis to a surprising but logical conclusion. I wanted better for the compassionate Adeen. Still, the gap between dreams and reality here is rich material for narrative.
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.