A Review of Meira Cook's Once More with Feeling
Review by Rhonda Dynes
Despite Terry Fallis’ amusing blurb on the cover of Méira Cook’s latest piece of prairie fiction, Once More with Feeling, this is not a “funny novel.” Labyrinthine, projecting, reversing, traversing, all of life on a strand of a spider’s web – perhaps those words might tickle the intimate and intricate lives and loves that Cook shares in her magical pages. But is this novel funny? Hmmm…
The plot of Once More with Feeling doesn’t seem so much the focal point of this, or any of Cook’s work (she is an essay writer, poet, and novelist and has won awards across the spectrum), but the story/stories she tells throughout her oeuvre hum with urgency. Take, in the case of Once More with Feeling, the Binder family, who we might see as the family at the centre of the book’s storyline. When we meet Max Binder, he is on his way to secretly pick up the family’s “World Vision Child,” Pat Ngunga, from Zambia as a surprise 40th birthday present for his wife. Pat arrives at the city airport (a thinly disguised Winnipeg) with no coat or heavy shoes in the middle of winter. So Max, a professor, decides to go to a Salvation Army to suit her up. He feeds her fast food, her first taste of North American culture. As they drive back to the Binders’ house she falls asleep and Max decides to just drive for a while. They never make it home and the effects of the event shake and startle the local community through the rest of the novel. This leaves Maggie Binder, her son Lazar, and her son Sams to cope with the more uncertain aspects of Max’s drive, and readers of Once More with Feeling to follow the befores, durings, and afters of the event through the eyes of both the Binders and the communities they live and work in.
The characters in Cook’s novel are vivid, their words their own, their voices rife with emotion, tenderness, and, above all, vitality. In one particular trip to the past, Maggie Binder explodes at her husband because he chose to name their son Samson:
‘It’s your fault,’ Maggie yelled at Max. ‘You’re the one who wanted to name our son after some motherfucking idiot in a poem by that cunt-bubbling excuse for a shit-faced fuckety rhyming loser.’ That was how Lazar learned that Samson was named after a character in a story by some guy named Milton instead of being named after some guy in a story by — well — God.
Later, Rose, who lives on the same street as the Binders, witnesses the beginning of a new winter:
…under a streetlight, a little group of refugee kids turned in circles, waiting for their first sight of the promised snow. Watching them, Rose thought of all the world’s lost children: her own that had grown up and out of the orbit of her gravitational love, and Aunt June, who had once been a child although there was no one left to witness the child she had been. All lost, all lost, the wind sighed as all the children — past, present, and to come — wandered in the imaginary desert of their eternal lostness.
The themes of children, of parents, of community are strong here and this novel’s audience could easily appeal to both the young adult crowd to more seasoned readers of Canadian fiction.
The novel, unsurprisingly for CanLit, is thematically positioned around the seasons, which dip in and out of focus. Short vignettes featuring characters both major and minor inside the walls and windows of the town’s most infamous, and sometimes boring homes, pepper the novel. At times I wondered if these mini tales could have simply been a set of short stories, only to find out later that indeed the novel did begin that way on the pages of Event, Grain, and Prairie Fire. Other times the book reads like an extended poem, its elegant lines and diverse voices simply twisting and turning forever into a cat’s cradle conversation on women, mothers, daughters, sons, religion, life, death, growing up, tradition.
Cook’s ‘Winnipeg’ vacillates between an atheistic disavowal of all meaning and a Jewish, maybe even Catholic, maybe even World Vision struggle towards some sort of galactic understanding. Even though at times the novel is overwhelming, with too many voices struggling to be heard, the urgency of Cook’s voices, their humanity, and their all too close-to-home thoughts and fears, make this novel a wise choice for a fall or winter night in this busy season. Maybe not a funny novel, but a damn good one.