Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
When I am asked to recommend books to customers I will stand in front of the shelves and point out books that I have read and enjoyed quite recently – and I’ll notice books that I loved when I read them some years ago, but I can’t remember enough of the details to describe the story. So, 2011 is the year to re-read some of my favourite books of the past 20 or 30 years. Some of these are books that were hugely successful when they were published, but many of today’s readers were too young to have read them at that time. So I will have the pleasure of reading them again for myself, and I will be able to talk about them with customers who will read them for the first time.
I began with Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, published in 1996. I know I read it that year but I had, I hate to admit, forgotten everything except that I felt at the time that it was an exceptional book – one I could hardly tear myself away from, like nothing I had ever read. I do remember that there was a theme of incest – and that one customer came into the store with her copy and literally slammed it down on the cash desk and told me she couldn’t read it and I could give it to someone else or throw it out. Since then Fall on Your Knees was picked up by Oprah for her book club in 2002 and for the Canada Reads competition in 2010. So, this is not an unknown book but there might be some who have missed it – and if so they really have missed an exceptional book.
An exceptional, and no getting away from it, a disturbing book. There is a prelude to the novel – a view of a room – with the living and the dead in place – Mumma and Daddy – and the children. Then, we begin - with James – a young man who sets out, in Cape Breton, to seek his fortune – initially as a piano tuner. When he runs off with Materia, the 13 year old daughter of a Lebanese businessman, his life immediately changes. With his child bride – and soon a child, Kathleen, born in 1900. I’m sure that as we read, each of us finds things they can relate to in a novel – in this case, for me, the Maritime Mumma and Daddy, is what my mother called her parents, and 1900 is the year my grandmother was born – so that I, as I read, could personally relate to the time and place. James does manage to continue to tune pianos in the area and support his wife and child. We are not far into the novel before we find that Kathleen is now a 12 year old – the same age as her mother was when James first met her. Kathleen is a talented pianist and an even more talented singer – more than the apple of her father’s eye – James finds himself sexually aroused by his own daughter – and horrified. After years of distance between husband and wife James now initiates a sexual relationship and two more daughters, Mercedes and Frances, are born in short order. There is a sort of happiness in the family. James has ambitions for Kathleen and she is sent off to New York for study with an opera coach – and to remove her from James own dangerous temptations.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart – there is a birth scene that is the stuff of nightmares, and the life lived by the little girls who inhabit the main body of the story is thoroughly heart breaking. The full story of Kathleen’s time in New York is not revealed until the end of the novel – although there are bits and pieces teasing us as we go along – most misunderstood by individual characters seeing only a small part of the past. It is as the past and the present come together, that those who survive come to learn the truth of what happened. And, truth, I believe, is liberating. Only with the truth can the past be put in the past, and those who have suffered find the clear sightedness and strength to go into the future with a lighter burden.
This is such a wonderful – and difficult – novel to read, as we see the children struggling with half understood truths that leave them feeling guilty for situations that are completely beyond their comprehension. There is a parent who loves his children – and is set on destroying them. There are girls so damaged by their early childhood experiences that you wonder how they will survive. There is also love and loyalty – and the power and protection of family. Kathleen writes in her diary “That is the perverse unbreakable Piper spirit”.
The novel ends with these words. “Here dear,” says Lily, “sit down and have a cuppa tea till I tell you about your mother.” You may be shocked, disturbed, and horrified by some of the story but I guarantee you will find this book one of the best you’ve read.