Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland
Mia Gallagher (New Island Books 2016, Trade paperback) 485 pages, cover price n/a
Well now. We have quite a lot of novel to discuss here, as you might surmise from that above noted 485 pages. They are a very full 485 pages at that. We shall get to a plot description in a few paragraphs from now but just to give you an idea of the fullness within Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland here are just some of the themes or major incidents contained within its pages: transexuality, urban terrorism, internment, adultery, abortion, abandonment, social climbing, parental death, and a history of the Sudetenland/Czechoslovakia. I’d say that there’s everything there except imaginary friends and mermaids except they’re in there too, although the mermaids are just drawn and not seen splashing about in Dublin Bay.
The only way I can really summarize this bold, experimental novel is by putting it in a context of two Canadian literary giants. Northrop Frye was one of the truly powerful analysts of storytelling in general and narrative fiction in particular. Frye’s core edict was that all stories – without exception mind you – are traveler’s tales of self-discovery. The main characters begin with a world and self-view of X and then after several things happen they end up as a somewhat different person Y. As I’ve written before, I never liked the notion of all-encompassing rules as they seem counter-imaginative. Surely there must be a novelist who can lay out a story where interesting events happen yet the prime narrator carries on unshaken and consistent? Well, Mia Gallagher has done that; however hold onto that thought for we’ll be coming back to it quite shortly.
The second giant from the land of my youth is Margaret Atwood. I suspect that if you were a contestant on a television quiz show and you were asked to name a Canadian writer, the odds are pretty good that Atwood’s would be the first name to pop into your mind. Unless of course you thought she is American or British, in which case you’re not going to win the new car or living room furniture anyway. Personally I’m more of a fan of Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies, but Atwood has a Booker Prize in her past and probably a Nobel in her future, so as Noel Coward once wrote, let’s not quibble Sybil.
Now here’s the thing and I raise this as a caveat. Literature and one’s appreciation of it is all a matter of personal taste. It is not, not an objective science and for that reason I write these reviews in the first person. So here is my take on Atwood: She writes achingly beautiful sentences, fantastic paragraphs, intriguing chapters, but as a novelist she leaves me colder than a polar bear’s bum. That Booker Prize? She won it for 1989’s Cat’s Eye and that was also the last novel of Atwood’s I read. I kept waiting for the goddam story to start and it never did. You can call me a boob, a bore, a knuckle-dragger to the nth degree and what the hell, you might be right. But that’s the way I roll.
If you like Margaret Atwood – and most of the world’s jury panels love her – you will like Mia Gallagher. Every page of Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland is stuffed with prose of simple elegance that also displays human insight with brave, verging on cruel description. Every permutation of family relationships is covered, from the love/hate of siblings to how distressing it is easy when one’s mother is no longer strong enough to protect us. Family is both shelter and trap, equally and in constant internal argument. We are all but individuals who each bear a certain private self we shall never reveal, for truth exposes us to more hurt than we can bear. Identity is a curse.
And yet – let’s trot Northrop Frye back out again – nothing happens. Georgie, nominally born a boy yet who narrates himself as ‘she’ until transitioning into the adult Georgia, never really changes at all. Oh physically, yes certainly, yet the same remoteness from peers or parents that she had as a child are still there when the narrative leaps forward forty years. If her father David, an architectural engineer, evolves into someone different once he makes his career choice after his wife Aisling does of liver cancer, that all happens off the page. Georgia addresses David through extended recorded monologues, yet he is never given the opportunity to reply. Does Lotte, the third major narrator, the cleaning woman who becomes Aisling’s surrogate for a time as her health declines, does she ever come to terms with her twin brother’s death from a bomb he accidentally/intentionally set off prematurely? We don’t know. Lotte’s story ends before it ends.
Now we are given a very complete and actually rather amusing history of the Czech and Slovak peoples as a museum tour that slots in between the narrative chapters described before. Perhaps that is Mia Gallagher’s point: We can know and categorize peoples, but not people.
I can’t say that I loved Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland however I certainly admire it both for its artistry and for its author’s gutsy call to not make human lives into neat little parables all done up with bows for Christmas. In conclusion, I’m reminded of a third Canadian. There was a longtime broadcaster on CBC Radio named Clyde Gilmour who hosted a weekly hour of vastly eclectic music on a show called Gilmour’s Albums. One week he decided to feature a couple of songs from Frank Zappa. What Gilmour said about Overnite Sensation and Burnt Weeny Sandwich sums up how I feel about Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland. ‘This may not be my cup of tea, but it is a cup of tea worth tasting.’
Be seeing you.