The Quality of Her Passion
Kim Echlin’s stirring narratives
Ibegin with an embarrassing confession. Until this spring, I knew of Kim Echlin as a well-regarded author, but I had never read her. I thought of her as a writer not afraid of difficult topics, whose novels ventured to some of the world’s most troubled places. As for myself (and this is the embarrassing part), when confronted with stories of Bosnia or Cambodia, I’ve inevitably reached for my Penelope Fitzgerald or Colm Tóibín. Not to say that there’s no sadness in Fitzgerald or Tóibín, but they don’t write about genocide. Of course, I was uneasily aware that my reading choices were leaving some excellent books untried, and I decided it was time to leave my well-appointed comfort zone.
The writer Marina Endicott once said that a novelist always tells the same story with different characters, plots, and locations. This may not always be true, but once you’ve heard the theory, it’s tempting to see where it fits. What narrative does Echlin return to again and again? It is not, as I mistakenly thought, centred on war and its unspeakable cruelties, although they do play their part. With one exception, it is the story of women who love men powerfully but love their independence more. The men almost always leave, because they want liberty or better work or a part in their beleaguered homeland’s struggle. Sometimes the women follow, but the reconciliation doesn’t bring happiness. What does bring a profound sense of rightness and contentment, if not happiness, is their intense involvement with a cause, music, children, or a community.
In Echlin’s debut work, Elephant Winter, the community is one of pachyderms. Published in 1997, a year before Barbara Gowdy’s better-known The White Bone, another tale that revolves around these majestic creatures, the novel is set in a tawdry tourist safari park in southern Ontario. It borders the farm where Sophie Walker has returned to nurse her dying mother. She begins to watch the elephants and their keeper, who moves “with the attractive, loose carriage of men who choose not to submit to offices and desks.”
This is the first sounding of a note that recurs throughout: the contrast between freedom and captivity. The animals are captives, as are the birds kept by Sophie’s mother, who is, in turn, imprisoned in her illness. As for her daughter, she thinks of her new caretaker role as “the first time in my life that I’d ever been tied down.” Just as the white fencing of the neighbouring farms “stretched like tape measures over the snowy terrain,” the lives of the characters are fenced and measured by the biological imperatives of birth and death: there are two of the former and three of the latter in this book.
Life in captivity does have its pleasures, though. Sophie likes the keeper, Jo Mann, and the way he smells, and they go to bed in record time. (This olfactory attraction is something she shares with several Echlin heroines.) Their first intimate moment is essentially a threesome, as Kezia, who “doesn’t like to be left out,” in Jo’s words, nuzzles Sophie with her trunk. Elephant Winter joins Marian Engel’s Bear in the niche reserved for Canadian titles that document close encounters with wild or partially trained animals, but after this initial coupling, the elephants are no longer invited.
Jo is different from the other men in Sophie’s life: he doesn’t read or care about the world at large or even talk much. Instead, the pair communicate through their bodies and his care and management of the five elephants. The opposite of Jo is Alecto, a menacing scientist who comes to the safari park to observe and do research. He would rather perform autopsies on creatures he has shot than enter into a respectful relationship with them. Symbolically, he is mute and communicates through writing.
It is the book’s greatest triumph that, without sentimentalizing them, Echlin gives the elephants individual personalities with motives, emotions, and, yes, senses of humour that are entirely credible. When Sophie’s mother eventually dies, it seems normal that Kezia would comfort her by putting her trunk in Sophie’s mouth. Most remarkable of all, Echlin has produced a compulsively readable, fictional “Elephant-English Dictionary” based on infrasound made by top-of-the-trunk vibrations, which the human ear can detect only through changes in air pressure.
Elephant Winter is not perfect but, thanks in part to Kezia, Saba, Alice, Gertrude, and Lear, it is the most immersive and page-turning of Echlin’s books. The only flaw is the creepy scientist, Alecto, who appears to have wandered in from a more theatrical novel, perhaps by Robertson Davies. By the end, Jo has left and Sophie has given birth to their daughter. He has taught her well, though, and she takes over his job as keeper. Underlining the paradox involved in selecting captivity is something Sophie thinks early on: “If you choose to live with elephants you’ve chosen to live enthralled. I allow myself to be ravished by them. I risk their force, to break and blow, to untie and overthrow. I am imprisoned with them and our bonds free us.”
Dagmar’s Daughter appeared in 2001, four years after Elephant Winter. There are echoes of Echlin’s first novel, but here the themes are multiplied. Following on from Sophie’s powerful relationship with her mother, Dagmar’s Daughter centres on two intense mother-daughter bonds. Like Jo Mann, the men here don’t last: they die or light out for the territories and are only ever intermittently available. The women they leave behind may adore them and lament their absence, at least for a while, but they have their own desires to pursue.
Dagmar’s Daughter is unique among Echlin’s works: a saga, a Celtic-tinged tall tale, a matriarchal myth that borrows from the story of Demeter and Persephone. It begins sorrowfully, as two women who have fled misery in Ireland wash up on a small island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Moll is a strange, dark figure, “remote even to herself,” who heals many but also nonchalantly kills a child. Her life is knitted into the fates of the other women. Norea falls in love with one of the locals of Millstone Nether, but her young husband dies in the 1918 epidemic, leaving her pregnant with a daughter. I counted five deaths in the first fifteen pages and settled in for a story soaked in tragedy. But things look up with the birth of Dagmar, who has magical powers. Carrot tops in the hands of the little girl root and grow in two days, while apple seeds become an orchard in four weeks.
In the weave of joy and tragedy that is life on the island, one of the greatest pleasures is music. Echlin’s descriptions of music and music making are always deft, as in a scene when a barrel of violins blows onto the shore and everyone on Millstone Nether picks up an instrument, sings, or dances. A reading of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English by G. M. Story, W. J. Kirwin, and J. D. A. Widdowson enriched her vocabulary with fetching words, such as “merry-begots,” “hangashores,” “sleveens,” and “slawmeens.” But even in plain English, her swift similes and metaphors are masterful. Norea’s Irish village is “a worn quilt of land laid out in uneven squares.” The feelings of two young men torn between anger and lust are “twisted like seaweed around an anchor.”
When Dagmar reaches adulthood, she adds to her gift for growth an ability to dominate the weather. After Colin, the fly-by-night father of her children, leaves, she expresses her bitterness with violent tempests, in which “storms tossed up many a ship and men died below the waves.” When her son wants to spend more time with his father, she ices over the harbours to keep Colin home for two winters.
Each indomitable woman in this three-generation saga has a sustaining passion. For Norea, it’s her ardent mothering; for Dagmar, her gardening and her power over the climate; and for her daughter, Nyssa, her fiddle. Nyssa runs away to the mainland with Donal, an ambitious classical double-bassist, but before long he tries to control her, dressing her for their concerts and replacing her reels and traditional music with Tartini and Handel. Defiantly, she retreats to her room, where she plays the sounds of Millstone Nether over and over: “She wanted this. More than home. More than love. She was fed up with Donal’s tiny rooms, his tired music, his plan to perform. She wanted her rhythms that sounded from the darkness and the bottom of the sea. She had to go back.”
But before Nyssa can return to the island, her mother, maddened with grief, unleashes a colossal storm that rages for more than three weeks. As in the myth, when Demeter kills the seasons after her daughter is stolen into the underworld, Echlin paints a powerful picture of enraged mourning. In the end, Dagmar’s daughter makes it back, the storm subsides, and, as happens often in an Echlin novel, an imperfect lover reappears, if only provisionally. When the villagers see Donal, they say of Dagmar, her mother, and her daughter, “It’s in the blood of those Nolans. They knit their twine with holes in it. There’ll be a party tonight.”
Echlin’s best-known book, The Disappeared, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize in 2009, is something of an anomaly. It begins disarmingly with the love affair between a sixteen-year-old Montreal girl, named Anne, and Serey, a twenty-one-year-old Cambodian musician. As usual, the sex scenes and musical performances are beautifully conveyed. Again, Echlin is able to open a window to a larger reality with the briefest of phrases. When Anne, the daughter of a preoccupied widower, meets Serey in a Montreal music club, he speaks to her “with the mix of interest and inattention I was familiar with in men.” When she looks at a photograph of Serey’s family, who sent him to Canada to escape the Cambodian genocide, Anne sees in his mother’s face “the solitary look of a mother of sons.”
After four years cut off with no contact, Serey leaves for his homeland when the Vietnamese invade and the borders open. Anne has yet to celebrate her seventeenth birthday. “Once in a lifetime,” she says, “if we are lucky, we meet the one who teaches us how even fickle Eros can set free abiding love.” That is the anomalous aspect of The Disappeared: not only has fickle Eros made abiding love possible, Anne’s devotion to Serey is the centre of her life. Eleven years pass; she becomes a linguist and academic, and though she hears nothing from him, she stays emotionally on hold all this time. Then one night, as the Vietnamese forces withdraw from Cambodia and the United Nations prepares a transitional government, she is convinced that she sees her lost love in a crowd on television. Within days, she flies to Phnom Penh.
With the help of a local driver, Anne finds Serey. His family has been killed, except for an estranged brother, and he has been working as a translator. They pick up where they left off and move in together, but Anne is torn between happiness and the nagging sense that he has a secret. When she goes to investigate the killing fields or visits a torture museum, described in a spare, quiet prose that makes them even more terrible, he refuses to accompany her. She tells him that she cannot live with his silence; he tells her that she suffocates him. Only sex reconciles them: “Everything I would forgive you,” Anne says, “to feel the rough calluses of your fingers against my skin.”
Without revealing any more details of Echlin’s searing plot, suffice it to say that Anne loses Serey once again. She returns to Montreal and tries to have a normal life with family and work, but thirty years later she admits that she has merely been going through the motions. As she despairs that no one knows Serey’s story, she realizes, “If we live long enough, we have to tell, or turn to stone inside.”
That is Anne’s narrative, the personal side of The Disappeared. But she is keenly aware that the reign of Pol Pot and its long aftermath have an importance that transcends her own experience. On two occasions she asks, one time to her friend Will, who excavates the massacre sites and tries to count the dead, and another to herself, “Once we know, what do we do?”
Will responds, “Maybe the only hope is that our humanity might kick into a higher gear, that the more we admit to seeing, the more we will believe we are not that different from each other.” A more terse answer is provided in the novel’s epigraph: “Tell others.” To save Serey from “an unwitnessed life,” Anne writes this book and addresses it to him.
Dreadful things happen in Under the Visible Life, which was published in 2015. Just as she enters adolescence, Mahsa’s happy childhood in Karachi with her Afghan mother and American father comes to a violent end when two of her uncles shoot her parents for their interracial union. She is raised by another uncle, in Montreal, where she pursues her talent for jazz piano until he forces her to get married. The family’s systemic misogyny moves to the third generation when Mahsa’s daughter is almost abducted at the airport while fleeing another arranged marriage.
In a parallel narrative, the mother of Katherine, the novel’s other heroine, loves a Chinese man. In 1940s Ontario, white women who did such a thing were called “incorrigible” and were sent to jail. Katherine is taken away at three months old and put in a children’s home and then foster care. When the family is reunited a couple of years later, the father leaves and returns to China. Raised by her mother, Katherine grows up to be another promising jazz pianist. She marries T, a charismatic Black saxophone player, and has three kids. Rather like the errant men in Dagmar’s Daughter, T is not much interested in the daily demands of domestic life, and Katherine raises her children alone and often in poverty.
Given all this hardship, it seems perverse to say that Under the Visible Life has more bounce and joie de vivre than any other Echlin novel, but that’s how it struck me. This tone comes partly from the music and the jazz community and partly from the happy, sustaining connection between the endlessly resilient heroines. Best friends even though they don’t usually live in the same place, they perform together, plan to tour together, and play their new pieces over the phone to each other.
Nothing, it seems, can keep these women down. Katherine puts up with T’s unreliability for a time, but when he spends his money on drugs while his children go hungry, she locks the door and throws his clothes onto the sidewalk:
T wanted to play and to have sex with me, in that order. I wanted my babies and sex with him and to play and to write all at the same time. I wanted to be recognized and get invited to play because I was good. I wanted to be more than a girl pianist. . . . I was not going to submit and be contained. I wanted to be unholdable. Women can get unsouled by marriage and I was not going to let that happen to me.
Eventually Katherine moves the children from Hamilton, Ontario, to New York City for a bigger jazz scene. T makes sporadic visits, welcomed once again by his unholdable wife.
Katherine and Mahsa may strike some readers as overly tolerant of their flawed mates, but Echlin is not writing a black and white story. Mahsa’s arranged marriage with Ali ties her to a person who shares almost none of her values. But Ali is a complex character with many failings, a few virtues, and his own tragic arc. As Mahsa nurses him during his slow death, she thinks about the price she has paid: “It was not love. In the place where I was born it might be called honour, and here it might be called loyalty, but these words do not describe the flesh feelings of a woman who has taken care of a man and borne his children whether she wanted to or not. Perhaps I should have been more ruthless.”
Under the Visible Life celebrates close-knit generations and communities of women, as does Echlin’s latest book, Speak, Silence. Gota is a Toronto travel and lifestyle writer and the single mother of a ten-year-old daughter. While watching a news story about the massacres and thousands of rapes committed in Bosnia in the 1990s, she thinks, “I felt those images in my skin. I could not say I did not know. To turn away is to accept. To remain silent is to accept. Now they were opening the borders, inviting us to the besieged city. What was I going to do? Write about corkscrews with rabbit ears?”
When Gota hears that a film festival in Sarajevo that she could cover coincides with an important trial in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, she makes plans to fly there. Aside from her humanitarian concern, she wants to reconnect with Kosmos, a Bosnian playwright with whom she had a brief affair in Paris years before.
Although he has never met her, Kosmos is the father of Gota’s daughter. It’s a complicated dynamic, though, as he has always loved Edina, a widowed lawyer who was repeatedly raped in the war, along with her mother and daughter, and who is now a witness and strategist in the upcoming tribunal. Edina has no erotic interest in Kosmos, but they are close friends. It is Edina, not Kosmos, who becomes the centre of Gota’s life in Sarajevo and who introduces her to the legal team preparing the case against a man accused of multiple rapes and procurement. The two women play countless games of chess, in person and on the phone after Gota returns to Toronto during the long lead‑up to the trial, which will be held in The Hague.
The chess echoes the strategy and flexibility of the courtroom, with the dogged, methodical preparation and the psychodynamics of each side. With Echlin’s skillful manoeuvring, the reader gains the same kind of satisfaction as from a police procedural mystery. The case is a tough battle, especially for the witnesses, who have to relive what they had worked so hard to forget, but also for the interpreters, guards, lawyers, and judges.
The result is a triumph, validating the lawyers’ epiphany that the rapes were not the individual crimes of a few men but a crime against humanity. As one counsel explains, “We had finally stepped back together to see the larger picture. We had finally articulated a pattern that now appeared obvious. Rape was not about war booty or spoils. Rape was part of a widespread attack meant to result in the extermination of a people. Ethnic cleansing. It seems so obvious now. But for us at the time it was a consciousness shift.”
When I began to think about Echlin’s work, I tried the two novels that deal with the most harrowing events, to test my mettle: The Disappeared and Speak, Silence. Then, having read the rest, I returned to Speak, Silence.
Gota has a pithy way of summing up our obligations when faced with horrors such as she encounters in Bosnia. One evening in The Hague, where she goes to observe the trial, she happens upon a woman who is due to testify the next day. The woman is frightened about her appearance in court, and Gota tells her, “I know nothing of what it is to be in war. But you do. If I do not listen to you, who am I?”
The Spanish expression Vale la pena is usually translated as “It’s worth it,” but the literal meaning is “It’s worth the pain.” Echlin’s books, difficult as their subjects can be, are much more than worth the pain. Beyond their considerable literary merit and pleasure, they offer a richer, deeper, truer entrée than non-fiction can provide into happenings we would often prefer to ignore. They give us a peerless chance to listen.
Viking Canada, 2001
Hamish Hamilton, 2009
Hamish Hamilton, 2015
Hamish Hamilton, 2021