Review of Turn Us Again in The Chronicle Herald

Mendel’s Turn Us Again follows paths of dysfunctional parents

Dying, would like to see you again announces the unexpected fax from Gabriel Golden’s father. The two are estranged, we’re told, and a reunion will be problematic at best. Despite deep reluctance, Gabriel allows his girlfriend to guilt him into action. Eventually he books a flight out of Halifax bound for London to face his dad one last time.

Soon after Gabriel arrives at his father’s home, an already fraught and morbid situation intensifies when he’s presented with a manuscript produced by his late mother and based on her life. Its existence comes as a complete surprise. Hungry for his mother’s voice and eager to understand his parents’ dysfunctional marriage, Gabriel devours the manuscript, sometimes silently, alone, and sometimes aloud in the company of his father. Through this process, both father and son are forced to revisit unhappy earlier years through the eyes of their departed beloved. They argue over the accuracy of the manuscript, they quibble about blame and lose their very similar tempers. The manuscript becomes the focus of their time together, subordinating even terminal illness. Gabriel’s father hopes the manuscript will heal old wounds and become “the basis of discussion and mutual understanding.” The latter proves a tall order.

Mendel uses the manuscript as a nesting device to deliver up Madelyn Golden, drawing us into the past, years before Gabriel’s conception. The chapters depicting Madelyn’s life as a young woman in London in the late 1940s and early ’50s while she’s a hard-working nurse with an active social life are among the book’s most captivating:

“She sailed into the back room of the pub like a queen, rewarded by the attention of many admirers and a lineup of dancing partners too numerous to remember. She danced and drank and felt mad with happiness.”

After the bon vivant settles on Sam, a rather unlikely paramour ill-suited to her in so many ways, the manuscript grows steadily darker. Around the halfway point in the novel, it suddenly becomes clear why Turn Us Again has won awards in the social justice literature category.

Fictional accounts of unhappy marriages can be placed on a dramatic continuum. On one end, we have Anna Karenina throwing herself in front of a train, Emma Bovary swallowing arsenic and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road performing her own abortion. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum may be Madelyn Golden, whose suffering is quiet but lengthy and unrelenting. Sam is a passionate academic with violent tendencies who never quite achieves the brilliance he so desperately believes he possesses.

The “marriage plot” is a literary term used to describe novels popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, structured around the complications of courtship and concluding in nuptials. Turn Us Again tracks a conventional marriage plot throughout the first half: the romantic reversals are many — for reasons of religion and interpersonal conflict — and the elusive nuptials are a constant source of tension.

But Mendel traverses far more ground than the typical marriage plot and far past the nuptial moment. She shows, in harrowing detail, how a weak communication style erodes a relationship over time, rotting it slowly. She even loops back to the second generation, repeating this pattern.

Mendel cleverly uses the manuscript and Sam’s marginalia (which often disputes Madelyn’s record of their life together) to reference the issue of truth in narrative construction. “A novel handpicks specific events and elaborates their details,” Sam tells Gabriel. “As a result, the emerging picture is limited to the knowledge of those events … our marriage is presented as a series of events.” Episodic retelling, he argues, is too selective, providing a distorted likeness. As the perpetrator of so much misery, this is a convenient defence for Sam. While we can see his point has some validity, we also know that a few well-chosen episodes can be a fair representation of a whole.

And here we’re offered a great meta-moment, since, as it turns out, Turn Us Again is not a wholly fictional creation. In her acknowledgments, Mendel states that Madelyn’s story is based on her own mother’s life. This means the book can also be read as an interrogation: one adult child’s artistic attempt to dissect and come to terms with her parents’ miserable marriage. Can a novelist reconcile her own life through writing? This daunting question is allowed to freely circulate in Turn Us Again.

The book’s title comes from Psalm 80, verse 3, a passage Madelyn often quoted:

Turn us again, O God.

Make your face shine down upon us.

Only then will we be saved.

Asaph, the psalm’s author, is asking God to show the Israelites the right direction. Only He can turn our lives around. And sometimes he doesn’t, for reasons that are not abundantly clear.

A triad of sepia photos on the cover may not attract the attention of bookstore browsers. Likely these have historical significance but they don’t make the most compelling case for the book. Gaspereau and Invisible are still the only two publishers in the region creating cover art that accurately communicates and reflects the art within the covers. Here is a renewed plea for more esthetically pleasing Maritime book design.

— Megan Power for The Chronicle Herald, 25 July 2014

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