Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Horseman's Graves by Jacqueline Baker

"...or so it was supposed," writes Jacqueline Baker in her new novel The Horseman's Graves, "since no one ever did learn for certain and it was all pieced together in the usual way, as history always is, by hearsay and supposition and outright imagination". Such is the tale Baker tells, and clearly this is a "tale"-- old-fashioned and unselfconscious. The story is filtered through various points of view of members of a prairie community close to the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, and it is this union of voices that allows the story to function differently than so many other prairie stories with their isolated first-person narrators.

Though of course this community is no neighbourly idyll. I cannot pinpoint one character at the epicentre of this story, but the characters who come together to fulfill this role are each alone in their own way-- the Schoff boy who is hideously scarred after an accident; his parents who are so isolated in their grief; Lathias, the Metis hired man who caused the accident and becomes devoted to the boy; the bizarre character of Leo Krauss (whose family had been feuding with the Schoffs since "the old country"); Leo's first and second wives, whose union to him is unfathomable to the rest of the community; and Elizabeth, the daughter of Leo's second wife who arrives in town with her mother's marriage and casts various spells with her bewitching looks and her strange behaviour.

And the tangled web of all of these characters (whose ties are not substantial enough to render any of them not lonely) is conveyed by each of them, and by their neighbours with a wonderfully limited omniscience on the narrator's part. It's so effective to come to understand a character through what others see. Baker writes beautiful descriptions of landscape, reveals so much with dialogue and weaves something lovely with humour and darkness together. She develops her tale in such a roundabout way that makes it feel like a yarn, and yet momentum is present all the while. Her pacing yields a fabulous suspense, and she holds back enough to allow her realism a decidedly ghostly edge.

I liked the unfashionableness of this book, and I am not entirely in the habit of being contrary. I like what seemed to be Baker's utter concentration on a story for the sake of itself, and the manner in which the narrative seemed to be "crafted". That with a genuine skill with language and story, Baker successfully realizes her vision without having to try to be clever.

With The Horseman's Graves Jacqueline Baker has written a real-live story with legs, and it runs and it runs and it runs.