Book review: Agony and ecstasy apparent in new novel Weekend

by janeeatonhamilton

Tom Sandburn’s review of WEEKEND in the Vancouver Sun. From June 2016.

2016-handout-jane-eaton-hamilton-author-of-the-book-weeken

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy tells his readers at the beginning of Anna Karenina.  Like most successful epigrams, this line is pungent, compelling and memorable. Also, like many such quips, it could work just as well turned inside out, as a declaration that all unhappy families have broad stroke elements in common.

While award-winning Vancouver poet, short story writer and novelist Jane Eaton Hamilton’s new book, Weekend is, by, the author’s own account, inspired by Raymond Carver’s grim 1981 meditation on love among the ruins “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” it can also be read as a reflection on Tolstoy’s formulation about happy and unhappy families. But however the erudite reader wants to compare it to earlier fiction, Weekend itself is a tour de force, an account of two same-sex couples in crisis, a tender meditation on the nature of love, desire, betrayal, mortality and reconciliation.

2016 Handout: Book cover of Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton. To go with review on Tracy Sherlock books pages. [PNG Merlin Archive]
Book cover of Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton

It also is notably successful in rendering the complex realities of sex, a challenge that defeats most writers who attempt it. Not many readers these days will be shocked or offended by the book’s sexual frankness, but some will wince at the way Hamilton breaks another taboo. Her enthusiastically sexual characters are in mid life (one is turning 50 as the weekend occurs) and come to their erotic experiences with all the baggage that status implies. In a culture that disdains the old, particularly older women, as sexless, these moments of powerful erotic realism are genuinely transgressive and wonderfully done.

While I describe the main characters as same sex-couples, the reality is somewhat more complex, as one of the characters is considering a gender transition. The fact that this character prefers the de-gendered singular pronouns “they” and “their” will take a bit of getting used to for some readers, but the calm, matter of fact way in which Hamilton portrays trans issues and the new verbal etiquette they imply is one of the book’s many strengths.

Unlike the gay novels of my youth, which tended to focus univocally on the coming out narrative, this book takes all that for granted and turns its attention to what happens after one has come out, won the right to marry and moved into what the public intellectual Stan Persky calls a “post gay” reality. Often enough, Hamilton suggests, this post liberation reality, while obviously a huge improvement on the fever swamps of homophobia and oppression that preceded it, is full of ordinary human heartbreak and betrayal, sorrow, tedium and flawed, triumphant love.

That recognition, and the lapidary prose Hamilton uses to embody and dramatize it make Weekend a remarkable, intricate and mature work of art. And Hamilton can reflect on these matters from the perspective of one of liberation’s veteran warriors. According to the University of Toronto’s Poetry Online, Hamilton “came out in 1982. She was a litigant in Canada’s same-sex marriage case from 2000-2003, and then maintained an website called queermarriage for the next several years to aid couples coming to B.C. from other countries with queer-friendly resources.”

Most of the novel’s action takes place over a weekend at two lake island homes in Ontario cottage country, giving the book a tight temporal and geographic focus, almost Aristotelian in its unity, a unity that is only partly diffused by the book’s coda, which takes the four lovers past the weekend, back to the city and on into new domestic and medical complications.

The couples are Elliot and Joe, two women who are celebrating the recent birth of their daughter Scout, and Ajax and Logan, who have come to the lake for Logan to propose marriage to Ajax. In the course of the weekend the couples are both disrupted, one by abandonment, one by a health crisis.

While in summary this may sound like the stuff of queer soap opera, in Hamilton’s deft, spare treatment, there is no melodrama. Sex is portrayed in a compelling, original fashion, and the trials and rigours of dealing with a new baby are portrayed with sensual detail and emotional depth. Hamilton’s rendering of her character’s heart crisis and of the years of impaired functioning, pain and body shame that preceded it benefits from the same sensual precision and closely observed detail that illuminate her sex scenes. All her characters are nuanced, complex and believable creations. This is the real world of imperfect adults, captured and rendered with compassion, wit and intelligence.

Much of this is accomplished by Hamilton’s exemplary use of free indirect discourse, that challenging but supple device that allows a third person account to reflect the first person inner life of the character. This approach, pioneered by Jane Austen, is a powerful one, allowing layers of double perspective and irony to be rendered in careful, minimalist fashion.

This is a remarkable book. Little wonder that Hamilton has been recognized so often for her narrative skills- by the Guardian’s Best Book of the Year List, the BC Book Prizes, the VanCity Award, CBC Literary Awards and many other prizes. If you have not yet discovered this important Canadian voice, Weekend is your opportunity.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net.