Dianne Warren's new novel, Cool Water, tells the story of good people, a whole town full of them. That's not to say their lives are easy or to be taken for granted, sure her characters have strife, but they also have substance and decency. Set in Juliet, Saskatchewan, the multi-perspective novel takes place over the course of about thirty-six hours. When I first started reading, and especially because the book opens with a horse race between ranch hands, I thought the book definitely had tones of Annie Proulx, all windswept, sand, and sorrow. But while the introductory vignette introduces us to the setting, the small town (population 1,100 or thereabouts), none of the characters reappear, except in story, during the rest of the book.
The intertwining stories of Norval, the bank manager; Blaine and his wife Vicki, a couple losing everything; Lee, a young man who just inherited everything; Marian and Willard, wife and brother of the deceased Ed; and Hank, an ex-rodeo cowboy-slash-farmer, unfold slowly, in delicate increments. Many have trouble sleeping and the whole book rolls out like those long hours in the night when one feels as though they're the only person on earth awake. Warren has a delicate touch, but that doesn't mean her writing reads overtly flowery or painfully self-aware (like so many Canadian novelists sometimes come across). In no way is this novel overwritten, either.
In fact, there's a patience to these stories, and the truth of the lives of these characters comes out in the details of the day-by-day. There's a beautiful line midway through the book that goes something like this -- that the nature of the day can change easily over night, day separate from night, like how one breath separates life from death -- I didn't mark it so I can't find the exact phrasing, but it struck me as unbearably true.
Lee's story resonated especially with me. Both of his quasi-adoptive parents have passed away and he's left behind on the farm; it's where he wants to be, but he's finding life alone in the house a difficult transition, dust collects, clothes go without being mended. When a grey Arab horse magically arrives in his front yard, he sets off for a marathon ride that echoes the book's first chapter. It's not even that the journey is epic -- 100 miles -- it's more what it signifies for Lee, a final transition from boy to adult, a man on his own farm, a man with his own horse. Lee's not the only one making a transition to a new chapter in his life throughout the book.
Cool Water remains full of characters whose lives are changing, sometimes irrevocably, but the novel's also about the small decisions that make up a day: whether to go to town or do your chores, whether to finally finish your to-do list, whether to round up the cattle immediately or get back together with a nincompoop ex-boyfriend. When you put them all together, the picture that unfolds isn't epic but human, and there's something utterly familiar throughout the pages -- but at the same time, interest in the story never wanes. It's a hard balance to strike.
The other parts of the book that I truly enjoyed were the will-they / won't they between Marian and Willard. They've been living together, without Ed, the actual person who brought Marian into the house in the first place, for nine years. She's desperate to tell him something; he's desperate for her not to leave now that her husband has passed away. Their stories are full of feelings that go unspoken and unleashed potential -- it's truly delightful.
I'm not going to lie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. My intern, Amanda, who's reading it too, said that it's Annie Proulx meets Alice Munro, and I think she's right, except much of the story lacks the latter's biting sense of humanity, if that makes any sense. When one reads Alice Munro, and I'm not for a minute suggesting she isn't the best short story writer in the history of Canadian literature, there's always an underlying toughness, a sense that life always takes a wrong turn, disappoints. In Cool Water, life's disappointing for some, but that cynical streak isn't as present. I'm rambling, I know. Let me finish by just saying that Warren's novel was a truly lovely surprise this week.
READING CHALLENGES: Well, indeed, this title would count towards this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm not even sure where I am with that one...maybe this weekend I'll take a moment to figure it out.
MOVING ON: I'm still trying to get through The Third Policeman and The Wig My Father Wore as my Irish reads for March. I'm also compiling poetry for April. Happy St. Patrick's Day peeps!