My rating: 4/5 stars
Having escaped the place in her youth, retired professor Sidonie von Taler returns to her ancestral Okanagan valley orchards still very much in the shadow of her deceased older sister Alice.
As she sifts through the detritus of her family history, Sidonie is haunted by memories of trauma and triumph in equal measure, and must reconcile past and present while reconnecting with the people she left behind.
Karen Hofmann’s debut novel blends a poetic sensibility with issues of land stewardship, social stratification and colonialism. Her eye for period detail and characterization is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin” or Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel,” while her lyrical realization of bygone B.C. pastoralia recalls the work of George Bowering.
The blurb is right: After Alice reminded me of The Stone Angel, big time. This is good, because TSA is one of my favourite books, but it’s also bad, because nothing can really measure up. Eventually, I realized there are enough differences here for After Alice to stand on its own, majorly influenced by Laurence, perhaps, but not derivative.
Where The Stone Angel fascinated me with it portrayal of aging – of a woman aging, specifically, and reverting back to childhood impulsiveness and petulance – After Alice frightened me. Hagar was 90, an age one may or may not reach, but Sidonie is in her 60s, and her stubbornness, her ambivalence towards her nephews and nieces (which reminded me of Hagar’s hate-on for Martin,) the creeping suspicion that she had mattered too little, had left no mark – is too close for comfort.
Sidonie’s retreat to her abandoned childhood home and subsequent illness are very reminiscent of Hagar’s journey into the wilderness. It may just be a coincidence, but I recently read yet another book with the “aging woman wanders into wildness, is stranded, and reflects on life” thing (Malarky, review forthcoming.) Is this becoming a cliche? It is effective though.
There are also shades of The Grapes of Wrath in the plight of the seasonal workers, both necessary and marginal. The reverse colonization, where Japanese labourers are brought in, during Sidonie’s childhood, is contrasted with present-day gentrification.
After Alice isn’t just about aging and pastoral scenes. It’s about importance of relationships, or sometimes, the lack of importance. I was struck by how few words are given to the recounting of Sidonie’s married years. The fact that Sidonie’s married life wasn’t central to her story was unexpected and I don’t know what that says about me, but it certainly conveys that Sidonie is an unconventional character given her age and background.
Hofmann is really effective in revealing the ambivalence in close blood relations – siblings, children, cousins. The sisters, Alice and Sidonie, especially. After sniping at each other in a way that is horribly recognizable, Alice lets her guard down for just a moment and Sidonie realized she doesn’t know her sister anymore:
“I pity you,” Sidonie says… “because you’re married to Buck, who, everyone knows, is a drunk and a bum, and you’ll always be poor and have black eyes and get fat.”
And then Alice opens her mouth in a sort of grin that is also a snarl, a rictus, and Sidonie sees what Alice has been hiding with her hand, her tight-lipped speech. Both of Alice’s upper eyeteeth are gone, pulled out, and dark spaces agape. Alice is missing teeth. How has this happened?
I was also fascinated by Alice as a mother, disgusted with her deaf child Claire; and how Sidonie related to Claire after Alice was gone, and then, in the present day, how Sidonie placed so many hopes on Claire’s child, teenager Justin. The portrayal of Justin and his two teenage cousins was great. They are at times sulky, entitled and “emo” but then suddenly caring and resourceful. The kids gave this book a hopeful tone that I welcomed, after the slow revealing of Alice’s death and Sidonie’s childhood trauma.
That slow reveal is so well done. Hofmann tells a story over many generations and places and not only makes it coherent, but makes you want, no, need to know more. Not a lot happens in the present, but after the halfway point, actually, right around the point of that excerpt, I needed to know. What happened to Alice? To Sidonie? Who was to blame? How did they seemingly end up trading fates?
After Alice has the makings of a CanLit classic, with complex characters, heavy themes done with a light touch, and expert pacing. Did I mention that this is Karen Hofmann’s first novel? I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Thank you to NeWest Press for the review copy!
For an amazing review of After Alice, check out Pickle Me This.