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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Nine Months in Vancouver

Christine Higdon’s latest

Jessica Rose

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue

Christine Higdon

ECW Press

392 pages, softcover and ebook

Taking place in Vancouver in 1922, Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue tells the story of four working-class sisters rebuilding their fragmented lives after the First World War. An absorbing exploration of themes like reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, and non-nuclear families, Christine Higdon’s novel is as pertinent today as it would have been a century ago.

The eldest sister at twenty-six, Georgina McKenzie can’t stand her handsome but dull husband, Victor Dunn, who is an unworthy replacement for Stevie Salter, the man she would have married if he hadn’t died in uncertain circumstances —“poisoned by gas or blown to bits or drowned in a muddy trench”— only six months into his service overseas. Two years Georgina’s junior, Isla carries on an affair with the policeman and rum-runner Llewellyn McFee, even though he’s married to her younger sister Morag. Sensual, charming, trusting, and now pregnant, the twenty-two-year-old has recently quit her job as a shoemaker because Llewellyn believes married women shouldn’t work. “Of all the crimes and misdemeanours his parents accused him of,” he reflects, “there was only one, in his mind, that was truly criminal: he’d admitted to them that Morag worked at Leckie’s.” Finally, Harriet-Jean, the youngest sister at “almost twenty,” is secretly in love with another woman.

Together, the sisters look after their mother, Ahmie, a pale, twitching woman with an opium addiction who has never recovered from the death of their father, Angus, in a logging accident five years earlier. Their older brother, Rodric, recently passed away too. He survived “four stinking years at war” only to die “under clean sheets, surrounded by women in masks, safe home in his bed, but gasping for breath. Killed by influenza.” Another brother perished as an infant. None of the sisters knew him, and he’s buried thousands of miles away in Scotland: “Baby John the Blameless, left behind, poor wee bugger.”

Told in three parts — each representing a trimester in Morag’s pregnancy — the novel’s main narrative spans about nine months. Despite this narrow time frame, it offers a wide-ranging story about the political, social, and cultural norms that governed Canadian women in the early twentieth century — including how their emotional labour as wives, mothers, and daughters was simultaneously expected and undervalued. Georgina, for example, dreams of getting an education, but her husband prefers that she spend her time knotting his ties and mingling among the upper classes. (He repeatedly insists that she “make new friends.”)

Despite, or perhaps because of, the overwhelming isolation and loneliness that come with constantly caring for others, Georgina and her sisters embrace the Roaring Twenties. Much of the book takes place in the wee hours at speakeasies or on booze-fuelled walks down the streets of Vancouver. (By 1922, prohibition had been repealed across much of Canada.) Ever-present “sloppy drunkards” and “vomiters” starkly contrast with the McKenzie sisters’ joyful jaunts, walking arm in arm, belting out songs from their childhood well after midnight.

Although most of the novel is in the third person, Higdon incorporates two first-person perspectives. The first is Isla’s, a significant inclusion, offering readers a better understanding of the guilt-ridden sister’s love affair with Llewellyn, which culminates in an unplanned pregnancy and an abortion that almost ends her life. The second comes from Rue, the McKenzies’ observant beagle. With a remarkable command of the English language, Rue sometimes offers shreds of information that propel the action forward, but she’s most often fretting about dog things, like being blamed for the disappearance of a pet chicken or being chastised for lifting her leg to pee. Her voice is a peculiar presence in an otherwise impeccably written book that rarely wastes a word.

Canines aside, Higdon ably crafts nuanced characters. Her depictions of the natural world are equally impressive, marked by meticulous attention to detail. Early on, Harriet-Jean admires the “cedars drenched and fragrant, their rain-soaked moss-covered trunks green and springy.” Later, the same sister picks blackberries under a sky that’s “cock-crow blue,” surrounded by “pink-tinged bindweed, purple thistle.” Indeed, such skillful scene setting helps Higdon convey one character’s surprisingly profound connection to nature: “The soft green reminds Llewellyn of the quiet afternoons of his childhood, escaping the house, lying in the moss, dappled by sunlight and the shadows of vine maple trees.”

A tender and memorable look at love, loss, and sisterhood, Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue both asks and answers a question that Victor poses to Georgina: “Why are women so angry?” Although fictional characters, the McKenzies represent the untold stories of countless real-life women desperate to shed strict gender-based expectations. Importantly, this novel gives a voice to the unsung experiences and under-reported perspectives of many.

Jessica Rose writes regularly for the Hamilton Review of Books.