A Beauty by Connie Gault
When a pre-publication copy of a book arrived on my desk with a note to booksellers that this is a “dazzling novel” and “the writing is crystalline and smart; the sensibility gently subversive and edgy, with an undercurrent of wit and darkness and a deep knowledge of the human heart” I was intrigued. Especially as these are the words of Ellen Seligman, Publisher, McClelland and Stewart and Vice President, Random House of Canada – a woman who has established herself as perhaps the most preeminent editor in our country.
The book she is describing is A Beauty by Connie Gault and I absolutely agree with her –this is one of those wonderful rare books that has it all. Splendid in every way.
The story takes place on the Saskatchewan prairie during the depression of the 1930s and beyond. Times are tough, people are starving and most everyone is struggling to keep their farm or business from failing. In Trevna Matti Huhtala has given up – he has taken his gun and gone into the woods, leaving his 18-year-old daughter, Elena, behind.
Elena coerced into a going along with neighbours to a dance meets the charming Bill Longmore and when invited to go off with him does so – she has nothing to stay for and nothing to lose by leaving. Elena and Bill are surprisingly well suited, the poor young woman, a motherless Finnish immigrant, and the wealthy, privileged city boy with his fancy convertible. They spend their first night in a hotel in Charlesville, a town “big enough only half the population knew everything about everybody else”. The sex is good, maybe even great – Bill is surprised to find himself thinking about love. Elena however is not a girl to show her true self to others – if she even knows it herself. She is a beautiful young woman, striking in appearance and demeanor - there is no one who does not notice her – no one who is not changed by her presence.
After a very intimate few days Bill and Elena separate – she walks away and he lets her go. Elena walks into Gilroy – a dot on the map in the middle of nowhere. She leaves a short time later with another woman’s husband.
A Beauty is a novel so full of brilliant observance and words that prompt both laughter and tears. Bill is only slightly more sexually experienced than Elena – but they get it right when “this time it was way more like Santa Claus has come to town”. And, years later when someone observes that Elena must have lived with someone rich, she replies “Well, there were a succession of men, and they tended to get richer.” All this on the Canadian prairie. The expanse of the prairie itself is as important as the characters in this novel – the dust, the locusts, the spectacular sunset.
A Beauty is a novel that I simply can’t do justice to in a review. The journey Elena embarks upon when she leaves her home takes her a life time to complete – the people she meets along the way, who are touched in unexpected ways, the twists and turns that life can take.
Canadian books being released this winter will all be contenders for the fall literary awards – A Beauty by Connie Gault is one that should certainly be on the list.