The Clock of Heaven made the top fiction list of 2009 in the Globe and Mail!
January 23, 2009
Smart and moving
Dian Day integrates grim humour and straight-up pathos as she gradually reveals the family secrets of an abandoned child
Globe and Mail Update Published on Friday, Jan. 23, 2009 5:00PM EST Last updated on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 2:56PM EST
Consider Esa. Pulled by her alcoholic father from an urban address “crammed full of skinny children, raw-armed mothers … and drunken hangers-on,” she’s plunked on a train to find herself two days later at a large and airy seaside house, enduring a much-needed scrub from her grandmother.
“Esa kicked and sputtered, coughed up bathwater onto Gam’s shoulder and allowed herself to be wrapped in a stiff green towel … round and round until she was only a pale aquamarine tube of a child, squeezed out.” That “squeezed out,” so finely attuned to the imaginative leaps and sensory palette of childhood, is one of many quotable takes on Esa in the first pages of this debut.
Esa’s dad departs without a goodbye. On the beach at low tide, Esa notes dead jellyfish, “glazing the rocks like fruit tarts gone mouldy.” Against the image of domestic decay are Gam’s pies, baked with her own apples. Fruit from three trees is being sliced for a “Three Sisters” pie on the morning that Esa’s mom appears unannounced outside the kitchen screen door, “her face faceted into tiny dark segments.”
She wants Esa; she will be waiting in the car. With nine pages of concise observation, Dian Day’s prologue moves from abandonment, through hope, to a charmed and fleeting happiness, then a grim parental repossession. It’s smartly conceived and movingly executed, and there’s no choice but to read on.
Guessing that Esa’s folks are serious offenders, we skip ahead to young adulthood and an office job she intends to leave before her pregnancy becomes obvious. The child is a co-worker’s and she’s kept him in the dark as well. When she announces her plans to quit, the boss invites her to dinner at his apartment. Observing the tenderness he shares with his male partner, Esa is struck with longing. Despite years apart from her family, she still finds simple kindness bewildering.
How bad were mum and dad? Day’s timing is deft. We’ve seen Esa grappling with life, functioning well enough, appreciated at work, melancholy though far from miserable. Then we see what she has been lugging around from the past and we instantly admire her strength. Forty pages in, we’re shown the day of her birth. Mother refuses to recognize her child. When the doctor, desperate, quietly suggests that mothers are for love, she plugs her ears. Father, located by the cops, brings them home.
A shift to early childhood presents Esa immersed in a tepid bath with her two sisters. Mum warns them to stay put as she’s called to the phone. They automatically obey; hours later, they are weeping in frigid water. Mother has gone to the movies. That they dare not leave the tub tells us everything.
Day’s descriptive writing, from character traits to scene setting, is crisply evocative. Still, she sometimes says too much, making explicit what’s humming in her subtext, what’s already present in the readers’ understanding. She needs to trust her readers’ intuition. Some of her lyrical flights can feel assembled rather than inspired. When stars above Esa’s Montreal rooming house are called “lost roofing nails in the cracked tar-paper sky of the city,” you’re conscious of writer at work, cobbling together the idea.
These lapses hardly matter. With Esa’s return, several months pregnant, to her Gam’s rural house, the concealed afterburners of Day’s story kick in. Esa descends to an ashen limbo that’s almost madness. The surging plot trajectory integrates grim humour, uncompromising pathos, an expertly wrangled supporting cast and a subtly woven mystery.
You want the healing to begin, but Day delays gratification right through to the final moments. Her ending is about half what you expect. I was out of my chair, pulling myself back into the world, when I saw that Esa’s choice, and Day’s resolution, were absolutely right.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.
Prairie Fire review by Donna Gamache
The Clock of Heaven was one of CBC’s All In A Day Book Panel picks: