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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Gone Girl

Judith Pond’s debut novel

Michelle Sinclair

The Signs of No

Judith Pond

University of Calgary Press

384 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

Judith Pond’s The Signs of No centres on a professor who spends her time thinking about her daughter, Stella. Rose lives with an unresolved grief: Stella vanished one day, at age eighteen, without a word. Now a cryptic postcard yields hope that she’s still alive, leaving Rose desperate to know where she has gone and, more important, why she left home in the first place. Rose wonders how she spent her life loving her daughter and still somehow missed the signs of “I can’t, I won’t, and you can’t make me. The signs of No.”

Two years after Stella’s disappearance, Rose is living in Calgary with her cat, Jeoffry, teaching at the local art school and writing about “the departures, the disappearances, the gaps that go unrecognized.” Moving through the world, she feels invisible, though she “doesn’t talk to herself; it just looks like she does, or it would, if anybody was looking, which nobody is.” Rose is lonely, but she accepts the ways she is viewed by others, reminding herself that she is also “practically daunting. . . . She lives in a big city, owns a solid house, keeps a decent car. All by herself, she holds tenure.”

She holds tenure in the novel too: her pain around the loss of Stella is the centrifugal force that makes so much else happen. Other voices gradually populate and animate the narrative. In chapters of their own, Morrison, Abbey, Parker, Iris, Mab, Dave, and Byrd have interconnected challenges, yearnings, and celebrations. Some help Rose on her quest to find Stella while others complicate her search. They are not all directly connected to Rose or even to one another. Instead, their lives branch out into a constellation that allows for thematic and structural expansion while remaining close to the protagonist’s introspections. The story always returns to Rose and her enduring struggle with “those stages you go through when someone dies: the denial and the bargaining, and so on, though she never seemed to get to acceptance.”

A cryptic postcard gives a grieving mother hope.

Paige Stampatori

Guilt consumes Rose, even though she understands that blame is merely “the factory setting for mothers,” especially for those whose children choose to leave without a trace. Pond demonstrates her versatility as a writer by conveying a variety of personalities and perspectives, all of which invite deeper contemplation of the core question: What does it mean to understand another person’s reasons for their behaviour? Even in mourning, though, Rose is still very much alive. When she meets a romantic partner, she immerses herself in a new reality, one that involves indulgent meals, painful yet life-affirming exercise, and palpable intimacy. Pond explores the relationship between choices, expectations, and boundaries and how complicated those can be for middle-aged women.

Rose struggles to enjoy her life when it feels at odds with the loss of her daughter and of her identity as a parent. Her thoughts on this tension are lyrical and profound. As she wonders about the time that’s passed and tries to pinpoint where she might have gone wrong, her reflections on Stella’s youth take on an extra dose of bittersweet regret. In a poignant passage on early motherhood, she describes how she felt while “working, managing a house, chasing after a kid, spending time in the cold and wind, in half-deserted playgrounds.” She comes to realize that “you think you’re tired, overworked, overweight, that you have no social life, that you never get to be creative. It never dawns on you, in the midst of all that, that you’re happy.”

Like her main character, Pond is a poet and teacher in Calgary. Her debut novel, The Signs of No reads as both a deeply felt rumination on absence and a sensual reflection on life and womanhood. Fiction writers, especially women, are often asked to what extent their work is autobiographical. Many have challenged this question as sexist — as if women are somehow more adept than men at translating intimate emotions onto the page but less skilled at imagining, inventing, intellectualizing. While this line of questioning often leads nowhere, many readers will nonetheless comb fictional stories for threads of truth, wherever those may lie.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse could be considered autobiographical, written by following “a rhythm not a plot,” as was The Waves. The modernist classic comes up at a critical moment in The Signs of No, which also follows a rhythmic pulse. Stella analyzes Woolf’s book, one of Rose’s favourites, saying that she liked how, because the character Lily “had her painting, she could be both intellectual (what Woolf called the ‘male’ principle) and nurturing. She could be both both — or neither. Thanks to her being an artist, Lily Brisco could be any old thing she wanted.” Similarly, The Signs of No introduces and then defies binaries and classifications — including those related to gender and age, creating and caregiving, even earthly bodies and celestial ones. Like Woolf, Pond asks if people can be both or neither.

This is a compelling consideration of the layers of love and understanding that can develop while living with guilt. Rose’s search becomes more urgent toward the end of the book, as it explores whether something lost is something found. Through Rose, Pond imagines a world in which women can surprise and forgive themselves. Even though the subject is serious and Pond’s prose rife with literary allusions, she manages it with warm, witty dialogue, wisdom, and humour. Ultimately, she asks what it means to step away from expectations, to stop denying oneself, to open up to possibility, shared intimacy, friendship, and hope.

Michelle Sinclair wrote the novel Almost Visible. She lives in Ottawa.

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