Book review: Shelter

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Take shelter in a stunning debut novel of two sisters trying to find their way

PUSH aside the pine boughs and envelop yourself in the revealed vista of Frances Greenslade’s stunning debut novel, about two girls who must find their lost mother. Here, a new voice has emerged from the varied wilderness of the Canadian fiction scene which is as clear as a glacier-fed stream and as compelling as that which tells a haunting story by the campfire.

The forested landscape of Greenslade’s novel, which wends down rough-hewn logging roads, passing through tiny hamlets and Indian reservations in the Canadian province of British Columbia of 40 years ago, was the same that this reviewer grew up exploring. I can vouch for her depictions of trout fishing, lake skinny dips and snow forts, and of the sometimes closely knit but distinct cultures of the Western aboriginal people and the region’s white settlers. Her characters, Maggie and Jenny, follow the same pursuits me and my own sister did when we were growing up there.

But don’t let this put you off. I could have been a coke-snorting New York yuppie of the 1980s who was stunned by Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Or a New England liberal arts college graduate who was captivated by Donna Tartt’s Secret History.

Being listed as one of the bookseller Waterstone’s 11 (I will insist on keeping the apostrophe), which champions debut novels, confirms my instinct: that although for me it is like reading a particularly good family memoir, its gripping coming-of-age-early story reaches well beyond Canada’s borders.

Likewise, the book’s UK publisher, Virago, moved fast by pre-empting an auction to snap up the book’s rights in Britain and the Commonwealth (outside of its home, Canada). Shelter has been causing a stir.

A familiar social and historic milieu is useful to only a handful of readers, so the important thing is how the author absorbs it to serve the narrative. Canada’s genius of the short story, Alice Munro, knows this place too. And not unlike the way Munro might do it, Greenslade uses the landscape to whittle a nuanced tale of a family split apart by nature’s rough forces.

The book’s title, Shelter, is what Maggie’s father advises her should be the first concern when you are stranded in the bush. Water too, whereas you can live for days without food, he adds. For Maggie and her sister, this essential need for cover is not just physical.

Their father’s death in a tragic logging accident – despite a tendency to worry that led him to be dubbed ‘Mr Safety’ by his less-careful colleagues – sends the girls reeling out of the forest and their mother somewhere deeper inside of it. Where, they are not sure, as her brief letters eventually stop coming. In the nearby town where the girls take what was intended to be a temporary shelter with family friends, Maggie finds solace in long winter walks remembering her father’s careful methods of survival. Jenny discovers how to knife hash on the stove top, and boys.

The writing is concise, with enlightening snatches of dialogue. A man of few words, Maggie’s dad shares with her how he feels about her mum, Irene:

“You know how on a sunny afternoon when we sit outside against the house and the sun is warming us? I look at her and she looks lit up. Her skin her hair and everything. And then I feel it. Like a little fish flipping on the bottom of the boat. It makes me want to celebrate. I want to get a cold beer and forget about the rest of the day. make a toast, to her,” he tells her, as he explains that he swore to never be a drunk like his father. “I’m my own kind of drunk,” he says.

Maggie is her dad’s favourite. She is like him, a child of her environment, of woods, lakes and loners. She finds the ease with which her sister socialises with others bewildering. But two young girls, who believe trouble comes in threes, finally meet the third. It is up to Maggie, whose character is a well-wrought mix of conviction and confusion, of wisdom and naivete, to find the answers they seek and the home they need.

Shelter

By Frances Greenslade

Virago, 384pp, £12.99