“We think we remember the past and imagine the future. What if in reality it’s the other way around?” So ruminates Lucy, the narrator in Vancouver-based writer Zsuzsi Gartner’s much-anticipated first novel The Beguiling, a seductive work that thoroughly upends comfortable notions of narrative linearity and offers up—in the end—a bewildering twist à la The Sixth Sense. The Beguiling is not an easy-Sunday-morning read. It demands careful attention to detail, and the ability to keep your wits about you in the novel’s hall of mirrors as its unorthodox storytelling structure reveals multiple sub-narratives that reflect and refract one another in interesting but elusive ways.
Gartner has previously published two short story collections, including Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (2011), which garnered a shortlist nomination for Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her mastery of short fiction is on full display in The Beguiling, composed as it is of a series of dark and offbeat short stories told over the course of thirteen years to Lucy by strangers who increasingly approach her to make all manner of confession: “the burdened came at me much like the New Testament’s disaffected and leprous swarms in a scene straight out of Jesus Christ Superstar. They didn’t seek absolution, at least not overtly. It was more akin to a divestment.”
Thirteen in total (forming the thirteen chapters of the book), these divestments range in severity from wishing a mother dead, to faking cancer, to committing arson and murder. The onset of the confessions coincides with the death of Lucy’s beloved cousin Zoltán, three months after he suffers an attack too strange and macabre to be believed. She connects her newfound, supernatural status as “A flesh-and-blood Wailing Wall” to Zoltán’s untimely demise, and captivated as we are by what is happening to her, we’re inclined to accept this might be true. Suffering herself from an enveloping postpartum depression and rage, Lucy actually takes comfort in the confessions—she even feels chosen: “St. Lucy. I really did like that. Fit me like an old woollen mitt. Idiot strings and all.”
It would be easy to be swept up in and even distracted by the dramatic telling of the confessors’ transgressions—each one truly worthy of a novel of its own—but as these strangers unburden themselves to Lucy, Gartner gradually, and obliquely, reveals between chapters her narrator’s own painful backstory involving an ill-fated relationship with an Irish boyfriend, pointing us to a possibly different, more profound reading of Lucy’s predicament. And as we come to know more about this character, the less reliable and more volatile a narrator she becomes.
What emerges from the interplay between the confessions and what we learn about Lucy is a picture of guilt and shame surrounding Lucy’s relationship to motherhood—in the present and, we discover, in the past—and her seeming inability and unwillingness to mother her daughter, Pippa. “I’ve long believed,” she says, “that people ought to have licenses for having children. It’s more difficult, more dangerous, and there’s more potential for wholesale destruction than with driving or flying a plane. The shocking negligence with which we procreate!”
As she moves from place to place and job to job, drifting further away from her daughter and ex-husband and still grieving for Zoltán, her sadness and isolation become increasingly acute. Mired in her own pain, which she cannot articulate and which strangely no one else seems to recognize, she is able to hear the pain of others and connect to something in their stories that feels familiar.
The Beguiling challenges perceptive readers to read between the lines, to let go of conventional ideas of a story with its beginning, middle, and end. Gartner’s writing, frenetic and unyielding, simply dazzles in this novel, as do her efforts to portray the tragic struggle of a fraught figure—the mother who can’t or won’t love—with frankness and humanity.
By Zsuzsi Gartner
Published September 22, 2020