My exposure to Canadian literature is rather limited. The only books I have read I think are by Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle – all wonderful. But then Margaret Atwood is also rather well known outside of her country.
Sadly, many other Canadian authors are not. Helen Weinzweig is an author I had never heard of. So when NYRB Classics re-issued her novel Basic Black With Pearls, the title itself intrigued me.
The result? I thought the novel was brilliant, and is a dead cert to make my Best of the Year list.
Basic Black With Pearls is arresting right from the first page and immediately hooks you in. The novel centres around Shirley, a married woman with kids, having an affair with another married man Coenraad.
When the novel opens, she is in an exotic city in the tropics on a secret rendezvous with Coenraad, as has been the case many times before.
Night comes as a surprise in the tropics. There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light. One moment the eyes must be protected from a merciless sun and the next, it seems, all forms vanish into the black night. I was sleepless in Tikal.
We learn that Coenraad is an international spy and works for a nebulous organization simply known as The Agency. Because of the clandestine nature of his work, their affair has to remain a secret at all costs. So they devise a complex code, known only to the two of them, by which they can communicate and decide on their next meeting – a code hidden in the pages of the National Geographic.
That’s not all. Being a spy, Coenraad is a natural in disguising himself, which means Shirley has to be alert to all possible clues pointing to his identity in whatever locales they are in. Meanwhile, Shirley has no illusions about herself admitting that she is an unremarkable, middle-aged woman. She always wears a basic black dress and a string of pearls (as in the title of the novel) to their meetings. And yet, she assumes the name of Lola Montez and when she is with her lover, she becomes vitalized and her persona undergoes a sea of change.
That’s the basic outline of the novel, all of which we learn in the first few pages.
Coenraad and Shirley carry on their affair in cities as exotic as Tikal, Tangier, Genoa, Marseilles, Rome to name a few. And although their time together is brief, it is suffused with a great deal of passion. To Shirley it is a rich life of travel, intrigue, adventure and meaning.
If all this gives the impression of an espionage novel with a straightforward plot, it is not. That would be describing it too simply and doing injustice to an incredibly multi-layered novel.
Now, things take an unexpected turn for Shirley when Coenraad, out of the blue, informs her that the next destination is going to be Toronto. It is a city that Shirley knows intimately but the last place she wants to go to. But meet Coenraad she feels she must, and off to Toronto she goes, albeit reluctantly.
What follows thereafter are long solitary walks through the city’s myriad streets, as she longingly searches for Coenraad afraid that she might have misinterpreted the clues.
It takes a great deal of energy to wait. Although I am quiet, I feel as if I were running all the while to a point in the distance, panting for breath. My entire being strains towards that moment when he will appear. Time is suspended; it goes on without me. And then, at the sight of him, in one split second, the waiting comes to an end: the clocks started their wild clacking, their hands race towards the time when he will go back out the door.
And that is one major theme of the novel – loneliness. Shirley is lonely in her marriage, married to a man who is highly predictable in his ways, and does not really love her.
I was thinking particularly of Sundays at home when Zbigniew comes back from the stables, hangs up his riding crop beside the mantel-piece and settles in with the week’s newspapers.
In sharp contrast, Coenraad conjures up an image of a man with a vibrant personality.
When I see that stance of Coenraad’s all fears disappear: babies don’t die, cars don’t collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.
But these trysts also have a price that she must pay; while her time with Coenraad is highly fulfilling, it also means that she has to deal with long waiting spells. And it is the waiting that can also many a time be quite lonely. It reaches its peak in Toronto –a city she knows like the back of her hand, and therefore there being no novel way for her to kill time.
It’s not all about Coenraad though. Her walks through Toronto also bring her face to face with many women whose stories of emotional imprisonment, suburban despair and impoverished immigrant experiences mirror her own.
The other major layer in this rich novel is the character of Shirley herself and her unique voice. This is where we realize that Weinzweig’s story is not just an espionage tale but something else entirely. This is Shirley’s narrative and it is through her that we get a glimpse of her inner world as she embarks on an erotic odyssey with Coenraad.
In fact, early on in the novel, it becomes vaguely apparent that things are not necessarily what they seem, and as the novel progresses the line between fact and fiction begins to get blurred. It all has the impact of disorienting the reader but in a highly compelling way.
There’s more. To me, Basic Black with Pearls is also a feminist novel because it gives an inkling (but not explicitly) of the limited roles for women in society and how the conventional roles of wife and mother are not something every woman wishes for. And it is also about a woman’s right to feel and express her desire (otherwise assumed to be only the man’s domain).
In fact, Shirley’s story, to a certain degree, also reminded me of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s wonderful, feminist novel The Awakening, and her yearning for an independent, creative life outside of marriage and motherhood. Another novel that comes to mind with a similar theme is Brian Moore’s excellent The Doctor’s Wife, all the more remarkable because it was authored by a man.
Helen Weinzweig’s writing is superb. Her prose is brisk, poetic and addictive. There is a surreal, dreamlike feel to it all that can be bewildering but is ultimately rewarding. And in Shirley, the author has wonderfully brought to life a complex, rich and an unforgettable character.
In a nutshell, Weinzweig has crafted an exquisite, haunting and poignant novel – leaving you in a daze, making you think a lot, long after you turn the final pages.
A note on the cover:
The covers of NYRB Classics are always top notch, but there is something about this one that caught my eye. The image is from the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Women series, and quite an apt one for this book.
It is also the image that captured Weinzweig’s imagination. Here’s what an interesting article in the Quill and Quire had to say:
When Weinzweig approached Anansi with an idea for her second book, about a middle-aged Toronto woman looking for coded signs from her lover in the pages of National Geographic, Polk admits he initially hesitated, but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, “That’s what I want to capture in prose.”
But she clearly did more than that, because her creation Shirley is anything but a one-dimensional woman.
An image from the same article – Michael Snow’s ‘Four’ from the Walking Woman series: