Sometimes, there's a clear reason how and why books end up on my shelves. Mainly they're inherited from friends in publishing, rarely they are gifts, and often they are books that I've purchased for some reason or other. But when the time comes to actually reading and reviewing them, I can't remember the impetus -- the review, the award nod, the discussion -- that precipitated the book collecting dust over the months and months it lingers on my shelves. Such is the case for Martha Baillie's The Incident Report. I know it was long-listed for the Giller in 2009, and the Globe review must have intrigued me, but having never read The Shape I Gave You (it's on the shelf; don't worry, and I know exactly where it came from), I'm surprised I'd have two books by one author unread...usually I'll at least try to read something by an author before buying another work.
At first, I didn't know what to make of the book: is it a novel, a collection of linked short stories, the dreaded micro-fiction? Instead, I'm choosing not to put a label on it or to define it in such a way because I think it takes away from what Baillie was trying to do. I enjoyed the book very much overall, especially the vignette-esque parts to the story -- those little episodes that took place outside of the main character's life itself (they reminded me of the interviews in Up in the Air with the employees who had been let go; that was my favourite part of that film, I think, also, the most original). Each morning, Miriam Gordon rides her bike to the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library, where she works as a newly rebranded "Public Service Assistant." When anything untoward or out of the ordinary happens at the library, said "PSAs" are required to fill out an Incident Report, which is how the collection is organized. Short, snippets of incidents that make up a life -- both in terms of work (the strangers that come in and request and/or do strange things) and her personal life (a burgeoning relationship with a younger cab driver named Janko, with whom she falls in love).
Because this is a Canadian novel, there's a lot of tragedy, which to expand upon would ruin the book, so I won't say anything beyond the fact that, as a reader, I have grown a little weary of reading about "damaged" people. I know pain makes for exceptional sentences. Yet, I am craving a little everyday in my books these days...maybe because I'm living so much in the day-to-day myself, and have had enough tragedy in my own to fill fourteen lifetimes that I am sometimes exhausted with it in novels. However, the nature of the narrative in Baillie's book isn't exploitative -- it's simply stated, matter of fact, even -- and that helps to dampen the emotional overbearing nature of the events themselves within the incident reports.
Some of the novel remains unresolved. Miriam's finding notes in various places around the library -- hidden in books, left behind on the photocopier -- that have echoes of a Rigoletto opera that her father once loved, and she's reimagined as the heroine. This was the weakest part of the book from my point of view. The mystery isn't necessarily solved nor is it suitably explained but, in a sense, that's okay, because it's more about how Miriam perceives what's going on than what actually happens that seems important. It's a way for her to explore her relationship with her father and for the reader to know more about the background of her tragic life -- how she ended where she is emotionally.
The love story is sweet, and Janko and overwhelmingly lovely character. Some of the passages had echoes of Ondaatje for me, "The Cinnamon Peeler"-type stuff, and I didn't mind it at all (only rolled my eyes once, and for those of you counting, it was, yes a "ride-me-like-a-stallion-Morag-moment within the book"). In a way, Janko was such an innocent character, consistently reading children's books, living in a small, small apartment, someone displaced by the ideals of a better life -- there was a story behind his life that we never got to know, only because this is Miriam's life, and so we know him only in relation to her. Had the novel been more traditional, I'm sure we would have known far more of his back story but then I think we would have lost the beautiful sense of wonderment that comes across throughout the sections of the reports dedicated to their relationship.
So, I wouldn't say I was swept away by The Incident Report like I was with the next book I read, Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how much I appreciated its brevity. Also, it's another book off the shelves and into the box of books to be donated, shared, shipped off, and/or sent away to anyone who might be interested.