Bruce Cinnamon’s debut novel The Melting Queen takes a unique approach to both historical fiction and magic realism, two genres that Alberta writers have long worked with in transformative ways. While there are echoes here of more established writers such as Thomas Wharton, Aritha van Herk and Robert Kroetsch, Cinnamon’s gender-fluid take on Edmonton explores new directions.
The title refers to a fictional tradition of “Melting Day,” held in Edmonton since 1904 to celebrate spring’s arrival, in honour of which a local woman is crowned Melting Queen. The novel opens with its protagonist, the significantly if ironically named Adam Truman, arriving at a life crisis (names, like much of the rest of the novel, are often allegorical). After breaking through the frozen North Saskatchewan, Truman is reborn as River Runson, who is promptly named Melting Queen. River’s title is challenged, however, by a former close friend whose identity has a different kind of fluidity. The narrative proceeds to explore tensions in the city between traditional, conservative ideas about the role of Melting Queen—and, by extension, women—and a gender fluidity that challenges those ideas, not just in the contemporary moment, but throughout Edmonton’s history.
Cinnamon demonstrates a wide stylistic range, from inventively pastoral renderings of Edmonton’s urban tapestries, to gripping sequences of homo- and transphobic violence, to poetic passages revealing a love for and skill with simile and analogy (Edmonton’s bridges pull the city together “like stitches trying in vain to close a wound”). Some dialogue reads like a staged debate over trans identity, but overall the novel’s social and political explorations come across through showing, rather than telling. After being named Melting Queen, River begins to undergo “Intrusions”—first-hand apprehensions of the experiences of former Melting Queens. Cinnamon briefly departs from River’s otherwise dominating perspective to explore the lives of women in Edmonton’s past.
Just as River attempts to struggle against rigid gender and sexual binaries, so too does The Melting Queen trouble firm distinctions between historical fiction and fact, between social and magic realism. The novel, much like its protagonist and, I suspect, many of Edmonton’s inhabitants, has an ambivalent relationship to the city it imagines: calling out its failings, especially in comparison to supposedly more glamorous global cities, yet insisting on finding and, if necessary, inventing stories that reveal the extraordinary.
—Jason Wiens is a senior instructor of English at the U of C.