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The Last Woman by John Bemrose

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Last Woman by John Bemrose

It has been several years since the publication of John Bemrose’s critically acclaimed first novel The Island Walkers. Now we have a new novel The Last Woman. 

This is a landscape further north than our own but very similar in many ways. The town of Black Falls is much like Parry Sound, and it is where Ann and Richard Galuta and their son, Rowan, live year round. Their summer home, inherited from Ann’s family is Inverness, on an island in Lake Nigushi – near the Pine Lake Native Reserve.

Ann spent her summers at Inverness and it was during the summer when she was nineteen years old that she had her first love affair – with Billy Johnson, a native boy from the reserve – just before leaving for art school in England.

Years later, after Ann’s marriage to Richard, Billy becomes part her life again when Richard, a lawyer, and Billy, now a councillor on the reserve, launch a land claim action. The land claim is unsuccessful and Billy leaves town – and does not return until ten years later.

We are only at the beginning of the story that now focuses on Ann – her manic-depression and her art, her son’s hyperactivity and anxiety, her husband’s ordinary expectations of family life.

Now, ten years after the failed land claim, Billy returns. Ann wants Billy and Richard to mend their differences and be friends again – and she wants Billy back in her own life.

This is a hotter summer than those of their childhood, the water is lower, there are golf courses, more lumbering – clear cut lumbering – they all express concern for the environment. On the reserve the kids are sniffing gas, there are suicides – there is mention of clear cutting in the traditional hunting grounds.

It is the lumbering that began the land claim action – but it is also the lumbering that provides jobs for many on the reserve. Billy Johnson did not have the support of everyone on the reserve – and when the land claim failed he left in shame.

The summer of Billy’s return Ann is at work on a painting – a huge painting that demands all of her attention – Richard understands this and allows her to work, asking only once that she entertain guests who are important to his plans to enter politics. Ann agrees but cannot get through the weekend without showing her annoyance – and Richard is furious about her behaviour. I can understand both sides of this, but things are not good in this marriage – and the return of Billy is not going to help.

Ann has never forgotten her relationship with Billy  - there was more to it than Billy knows. Richard knows all about the past and he has accepted that Ann’s life before their marriage is the past and he has put it there. It is only now that Billy is back that Richard finds Ann’s need for Billy difficult to understand and accept.

When Billy and Ann become lovers again the marriage is doomed. Ann remains at the cottage, painting, and Richard lives in their home in Black Falls – Rowan shuffled between them. No one happy. The only control that Richard has in his life is the TV remote.

What do we make of the scene where Richard, home alone, holds one of Ann’s dresses in his arms – a dress they bought together in Paris, when Richard thought they were happy. Richard believes that he will do whatever it takes to reconcile with Ann – to mend their marriage. Then – he reads a journal Ann has left in her drawer and discovers that in Ann’s mind she always loved only Billy – and pitied Richard for his devotion. It’s a good guess that this marriage is over now.

On the lake, Ann paints – her giant woman – the description Bruegel-like – horrific – which she now calls The Last Woman. On the reserve, Billy despairs at the relentless drinking and gas sniffing youth, “it never stops”. Ann and Billy paddle into the north, to find the cabin that Billy’s family always used as a hunt camp. They paddle through clear-cut forest – stumps – heat. The cabin is in need of repair – there are a few trees intact. Billy retreats emotionally – Ann wonders what the future will hold for the two of them. And the reader is left wondering if the past will make it too difficult for Ann, for Billy, and for Richard to find a future together.

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