Sometimes a burr is a distraction that sticks to the fur of black bears and the fabric of trousers; other times it is an existential threat that holds a songbird by the wing and kills it. The difference, of course, is scale. To a bear, a burr is the size of one of its molars. To a thrush, a burr is the size of its head. To the characters of Brooke Lockyer’s debut novel, it is the size of a small town. “Unlike unassuming Paris, or the nearby village of Dublin,” writes Lockyer, “Burr lives up to its name. The prickly fruit is everywhere in this flat Southwestern Ontario town, clinging to socks and sleeves and hair.”
Set in 1994, Burr begins with the sudden heart attack and death of Henry Blackburn, father to morbid Jane and husband to bookish Meredith. In her grief, Meredith takes a long walk into the forest surrounding Burr, where she discovers something strange: “A bed in the middle of a thicket. A proper bed, with a curved wooden headboard, two plump pillows, a ruffled skirt and a quilted bedspread tucked under the mattress, the corners perfectly folded.” Accepting the anomaly as a sign from her dead husband, she decides to sleep out among the trees.
Meanwhile, in the absence of her father and now her mother, thirteen-year-old Jane is left to deal with her trauma alone. She turns to Ernest Leopold, Burr’s resident eccentric. Decrepit in body and childlike in mind, Ernest lives alone in an untended mansion, the sole heir to a family fortune, because his sister, Evelyn, drowned at sea as a child. Ernest still feels guilty for not saving her. Noticing Jane in her own grief, looking an awful lot like his sister, he begins to stalk her, to photograph her, and to offer her rides in his 1957 Thunderbird. Despite the rumours around town about dead girls in his bed, Jane warms to Ernest, looking perhaps for a new father. Both grasping after ghosts the other might replace, the two leave Burr for a seance in Toronto.
Pale and malnourished, the figure of Ernest initially recalls the gothic tales of Edgar Allan Poe. But Lockyer plays his relationship with Jane humorously and with a nice ambiguity, acknowledging their potentially fraught dynamic in scenes that have Ernest changing Jane’s pyjamas or dancing with her to Bessie Smith. While the denizens of Burr see illicitness in their companionship — especially after they board a train together in nearby London — Ernest’s interests remain purely sentimental. There are hints that his mental growth has been stunted by his mourning, leaving him safely outside the realm of sexuality. In this way, his story with Jane is less like Lolita and more like the thriller film Léon: The Professional, in which a young girl is taken under the wing of a childlike hit man.
With Meredith in the woods and Jane and Ernest in Toronto, Burr turns out to be surprisingly easy to escape. Given the time that Lockyer puts into building the community, it’s a shame that she allows readers to see so little of it. It’s similarly disappointing that she quickly dispatches Meredith, who is inexplicably left out in the forest long enough for her daughter to go missing. It might be tempting to say that, well, this is how grief works: you can no longer look after yourself, never mind your family. But even after Meredith returns home and sees that Jane is gone, she finds the time to make a peanut butter sandwich. Later, convinced her daughter has been kidnapped, she pauses the search to eat at a Tibetan restaurant.
The most confident of Lockyer’s prose appears less in the movements of the plot and more in the anthropomorphized voice of the fictional town itself. Dispersed throughout the novel, these chapters are often no longer than a page and serve as a kind of local field guide. The reader receives regional lore, past scandals, and the paranoia and worries of residents. As in The Employees, the acclaimed novel by the Danish author Olga Ravn, the interstitials manage to evoke a collective rural poetry: “Superstitious farmers washed their trucks and sprayers and dried clothes on the line to coax a rain. During droughts, they prayed for the birds to fly low, for the ants to fortify their walls, for spiders to scuttle down their webs, for the sheep to turn into the wind.”
After these effective interludes, readers may find themselves waiting impatiently to be taken back to Burr and all the potential life within it. Instead, they will spend far too much time lost in the forest or traipsing through the streets of Toronto.
Chelsea Wakelyn’s What Remains of Elsie Jane begins at the funeral home. Elsie, a young single mother, is there to see the body of the love of her life, Sam, and to arrange his memorial. Once Sam has been cremated and his ashes stored inside a “Death Star cookie jar,” the book follows Elsie almost claustrophobically as she drifts through various stages of grief, losing in the process both sleep and her sense of self. “This is the problem with being around people,” she explains. “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t pretend that I’m a normal human having a regular good time.”
It is helpful to keep this statement in mind while reading Wakelyn’s debut novel, which consists of a random cluster of scenes as Elsie fails to interact “normally” with the people who float in and out of her periphery. This failure even extends to her own children, who mostly seem to disappear. Elsie says that they “have become blurs that squawk and orbit around me making demands, and even though I don’t fully see them anymore, I respond as though I do.” But this doesn’t quite explain how little they feature in the proceedings. In a similar omission, Elsie’s sister isn’t afforded a name for over 160 pages, giving the impression that neither Elsie nor Wakelyn can remember it. (It’s Rachel.)
Like Jane and Meredith in Burr, Elsie eventually looks to magical thinking. Rather than taking up the occult and its communion with the dead, however, she puts her hope in the popular theory of parallel universes. “I’ve spent hours reading about quantum cosmology,” she says. “Other worlds of you and me exist, the stories of our lives woven and split.” Our experiences in this particular world, she continues, are “simply swatches of fabric in the endlessly layered tapestry of space-time.” Elsie theorizes that if she can somehow hop across that fabric, she might be able to replace her missing love.
While it’s nominally about a grieving woman attempting to navigate her new life, What Remains of Elsie Jane often behaves like a sitcom. Indeed, Elsie frequently finds herself in situations that mimic scenes from half-hour episodes. Some, like an appointment she has with her therapist, are almost stereotypically framed (in this case, the patient proves too quick for the doctor). Others contain genuinely funny moments, such as a fling she has with Saul, a self-obsessed writer: “When he came, he made a sound like Scooby-Doo does when he laughs. It was all very romantic, except for the part when Benji woke up on account of the Scooby-Doo noises and my milk came flooding through my T-shirt at the sound of my baby’s cry.”
This sense of the novel as TV is exacerbated by Elsie’s fast-paced, acutely self-aware speech, rather reminiscent of Gilmore Girls. Offered a drink by a hotel bartender, she declines, telling him, “The last time I drank, I ended up cradling my partner’s Death Star cookie-jar urn and scream-crying at my mother-in-law’s house in Calgary, and that really scared her dog.” Most emotions and confrontations are held at arm’s length by this ironic stance, and so swept up is the novel in its own humour that Elsie never becomes more than a passive participant in her own story.
When Wakelyn allows for an earnest beat, the prose becomes honest and, as a result, more potent. Sam, it emerges, struggled with alcoholism for years. Describing the effect his disease had on his loved ones, Wakelyn writes that “the addiction is a plagiarist, and the addicted person’s brain and personality are slowly, slowly, slowly overwritten with a new narrative but in the same pen.” Anyone who has loved an addict can understand this truth. One only wishes the novel, premised on so much heartbreak, had more time to consider the effects of such tragedies — especially considering their pervasiveness.
For Elsie, tragedy manifests as an individualized pain, a uniquely debilitating loneliness; for the residents of Burr, tragedy generates a net cast over an entire town, a widespread paranoia. Read together, these two bold but uneven books show that the difference is so often one of scale.