Review by Catherine Nutter
Saskatchewan writer Leona Theis’s second novel The Art Of Salvage, (Coteau Books, 347 pp., $19.95) deals with classic themes — family, heredity, and the influence of the past upon the present. If this novel were a painting, it would be a prairie landscape with small human figures tenaciously present in the stark division between earth and sky — the flat horizon an emotional tightrope.
The Art Of Salvage unravels the complex and evolving relationship of mother and daughter in a less than perfect world. Theis’s characters speak of their inheritance of depression, and the struggle to belong, in marginal, muted voices. But while their mood is subdued, the overall feeling is one of hope.
Set in Saskatoon, the novel jumps back and forth in time from the 70’s to the present. It is an acutely perceptive portrayal of Delores, a woman burdened and stunted by the emotional baggage of her past who finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, and Amber, the product of that pregnancy, whom Delores gives to her own parents to raise.
“The baby wasn’t real, didn’t exist. Phil was in the past, the distant past, and any baby she might have was in the distant future. It was impossible to believe that the two were coming together inside her. What do you do with a baby? Where do you put it? When Delores was a girl, her mother had shown her how to make something go away. The thing her mother could make go away was a salesman’s knock. You had to sit quietly and not respond . . . .”
This strategy of hiding from life’s unpleasant difficulties is at the root of the conflict between Amber and her sister/mother. Delores’s secrets come crashing down around Amber’s ears as schoolyard taunts reveal that her world was not as she believed it to be. Amber’s desperation for a real connection to her mother is met with Delores’s stony reluctance to connect emotionally, “As if when Del had given her child over to her own parents to raise, someone had told her that love abhors a crowd.”
Del finds comfort in the routine of a blue-collar job in a clothing factory, and desperately tries to fend off any change or emotional growth. She watches the news on a Detroit television station, in order to keep real life at a distance. “She could tolerate drama if it was half a continent way.”
Delores’s attempts to keep drama at bay are ultimately thwarted by the resilience and deep emotional need of her daughter Amber, who breaks through Delores’s wall of silence and bridges the gap between their lives.
Bridges feature strongly in Theis’s novel, as passages between mother and daughter, past and present, life and death. Amber’s quest is to bridge the gap between darkness and light within herself. “There she goes, thinking again that she can spin something out of near to nothing. If you can call that faith, after a fashion, then she does have her portion of faith after all. It must be what’s holding her feet on the bridge.”
This faith, and willingness to keep up the struggle, is key to bridging the gap between mother and daughter, past and present, hurt and forgiveness. The true art of salvage, Theis shows us, is the ability to recognize the value of things that have been cast aside, broken and forgotten. Love allows us to see that value in people, even when they can’t see it in themselves.