Saskatchewan Journey

Diane Warren’s upside-down novel is peopled with vivid small-town characters.

Dianne Warren is a writer whose narrative technique is so subtle she might be an author without a strong sense of how her fiction works. Or perhaps with Liberty Street, her first novel since the Governor General’s Award–winning Cool Water, the vivid prose came off the tips of her fingers without much conscious effort.

The reader wonders whether Liberty Street is somehow upside down—a collection of chapters that function almost independently of one another, seemingly shuffled into random order. Because the big reveal—what most novels’ opening pages of fiction point toward—occurs on page 2 of this deceptively mundane tale.

“We were firmly lodged in a traffic jam in a small Irish town,” says the narrator, Frances Moon, in the first sentence of the book. And then, several hundred words on: “I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene unfolding … Just nineteen, I thought, and a baby too.” Frances is repeating the words of the local policeman who has announced the reason for the funeral that has caused traffic to come to a halt in the little town. Soon she has told Ian, her travel companion and partner of more than 20 years, that she was once married, and still is. And she once lost a baby in childbirth, but the husband and the father of the baby were two different men. A bit much for any long-time boyfriend to absorb calmly and certainly a jolt to the unsuspecting reader.

Liberty Street is an uncommon narrative, but not for Dianne Warren, a Saskatchewan playwright, short story writer and novelist who brings to all she writes such a fine sense of place—small town and rural Canadian prairie—that it is hard to separate her characters from the settings they inhabit. Not for the first time in Warren’s work, this novel concerns a journey, a literal as well as a figurative series of trips into the past and ongoing in the present, in which we engage with Frances. Abandoned by her shocked and dismayed partner on their trip to Ireland, she is soon on a voyage to discover her own self.

Warren’s manipulation of detail, such that a pile-up of mundanities and ordinary thoughts and experience is given a twist into the bizarre, is one reason Liberty Street is a page turner even without an obvious chronological or even logical connection linking chapters. Frances seems unruffled by the sudden departure of her lover, who goes back to Canada, leaving her to find companionship among a group of English Christian travellers—all men—while she lingers in Ireland a few more days. It is only on the plane home that Frances, alone, reading a Canadian newspaper story about a homeless man who allegedly dies in a hospital waiting for emergency treatment, is struck by the enormity of what has happened. “I wanted to weep because someone had died for being unpredictable.” It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to realize that Frances is weeping for her own unpredictable self.

Chapter Two, “We Two Girls,” takes the narrative back to Frances at five years of age. The title refers to the central relationship in her life: with her mother. Over the course of nine chapters covering all of Frances’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood (all except for her time with Ian; he is never heard from again except in a flashback of their meeting) and current middle-aged life, we piece together who Frances is. That is, the reader does the work of assembling a coherent portrait of Frances, maybe getting to know her a little better than she knows herself.

There are other mysteries, too. Whom did she marry? Who was the father of the baby? Who killed Silas Chance, the First Nations hired hand who had been a tenant of the Moon family? And what is the significance of Liberty Street? And what became of Dooley Sullivan, the boy with a troubled background in Frances’s school who was the class clown?

Liberty Street is in Elliot, the small town closest to the Moon family farm. The house that Frances journeys to was built by her English uncle for his fiancée. But Uncle Vince dies before his bride can arrive from Great Britain and the Moons inherit the home. (Although place is so much embedded in these characters, the Moon parents, English immigrants, are always somehow out of place.) It is the Liberty Street house that eventually provides a haven for Frances’s oddball mother, whose signature appearance is in the snazzy car she won in a raffle. Frances as a child understood that her mother once disappeared in it for a few days on a trip to Nashville, where she was to pursue a country singing career. This was, in fact, a lie—Mrs. Moon had gone on a shopping trip to Yellowhead. But Dianne Warren imagines such unpredictable small-town Saskatchewan characters and makes them more convincing than people in a newspaper report.

This way of storytelling has been present in Warren’s work since her earliest success, the GG-nominated play “Serpent in the Night Sky,” wherein a couple, Joy and Duff, meeting face to face for the first time are plotting to get married. Family matters ensue. This couple might be progenitors of Frances and the much older man Joe Fletcher, whom, we eventually learn, she marries. Never was there less romance in a marriage, short-lived though it is.

Due to her gift for imaginative dialogue, Warren’s characters—Liberty Street has a huge cast —are as vivid as any seen on stage or screen, their voices so true you can immediately visualize them, even smell them. Here are Ian and Frances, in their final moments together:

“You know that you’re a person who resists happiness, right?” [Ian]

“That’s not true,” I said.

“It is true. You don’t trust it.”

Then he closed the door and left.

Ian might have got her exactly right, but Frances, always ready to deny others’ characterization of her, does not know who she really is. Soon we do not trust her as a narrator.

Writing as if life were as random as it really is, Warren gains our willing suspension of disbelief as her tale wraps up almost all the loose ends. When the long forgotten Joe, whom she married at 18 in defiance of her mother’s plans for her, turns up in the Elliot hospital where Frances has gone for treatment of a rusty nail wound, we accept the coincidence.

Each chapter, even the awkwardly placed “The Ballad of Dooley Sullivan,” written from Dooley’s point of view, is eventually knitted into a narrative that becomes coherent in the reading of it. Not until near the end of the book do we find out how central Dooley is to Frances’s story.

Continuity of imagery and character, rather than chronology, assures it all hangs together. And because Warren’s people are so plausible, coming off the page like actors on a stage, we can close Liberty Street with the sense of having heard a satisfying tale and perhaps learned as much from fiction as we might have from a road trip to Saskatchewan.