The Malahat Review - Euphoria

Reviewed by: Sandra McIntyre

Of the hundreds of manuscripts I read as an acquisitions editor, it seemed every other one included a prologue. So many writers feel the need to employ them--to the point that I've become wary (and a little weary) of the prologue. It's not just that they are commonplace; it is that they so rarely serve a real function in relation to the story. Extraneous, redundant, self-indulgent--there are myriad reasons why they are unnecessary. I'm not the only one to take up an anti-prologue stance: Elmore Leonard finds "they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want." What does it say about a writer who uses a prologue when the same content could have been woven into the story, with a little effort and writerly skill? With only one shot at a first impression, a weak opening via an ineffective prologue is a huge misstep. Even a well-written, functional prologue runs the risk of sacrificing the all-important impact of a dazzling opener. Prologues rarely make a splash.

Connie Gault opens her debut novel, Euphoria, with a prologue. Titled "The Promise, Toronto, November, 1891" it is, at first glance, typical. It is historical in relation to the setting of the main narrative, which follows the recovery of Orillia Cooper in the days and weeks following the Regina Cyclone (tornado) of 1912. Also, it introduces Euphoria's main character, Gladdie McConnell, who at the time of the prologue is a servant in Mrs. Riley's boarding house and the only one really struck with grief at the recent death--suicide, in fact--of one Jessie Dole. The title's promise is the one made by Gladdie to the day-old baby girl left behind by Jessie Dole. The scene is dramatic and the writing powerful. Gault's prologue even provides a moving and memorable first line: "The earth tipped and she was gone." While it is backstory, Euphoria's prologue is distinguished by the fact that it presents much more than a thematically resonant moment. "The Promise" recalls the very moment that decides the course of Gladdie's life, giving her purpose, determining her almost every move for twenty years. In being placed up front, distinct from the other chapters, the prologue content serves an interesting framing function: subsequent chapters are read in its light. Gladdie's story before 1891 is character-building; Gladdie's actions and decisions after 1891 follow the logic of "The Promise." This prologue, then, is the centre, the very heart, of the novel.

Gault takes a huge risk in setting up her novel this way. A prologue that is key to understanding so much about the novel--from Gladdie's motivations to the nature of the relationship between the main characters--may seem like the set-up for a boring read. On the contrary; Gault's skill as a writer lies in her ability to maintain the reader's interest in the unfolding of the story, despite the fact we've been given a hefty clue how to read it. She accomplishes this through the deft interplay of shifting points of view and chronology, and a gentle touch with character that makes us at once sure and unsure about each one. We never forget the promise that connects Gladdie in 1891 to any Gladdie we read about thereafter, but under Gault's sure guidance, this knowledge does not prevent us from taking pleasure in the connections.

All this talk of clues to reading and keys to understanding might sound old-fashioned, or very un-postmodern, but Euphoria is a somewhat old-fashioned book. Underneath the back-and-forth chronology and alternating points of view lie an elegant symmetry and a preference for action over psychology. Here we have one orphan looking out for another, two daughters with absent mothers, two childless women rescuing "daughters" from tragedy, the lies these women tell to protect their positions as mothers, the secrets the lies necessitate, and the truths that come out in the end. Partly through Gault's subject matter and partly through the structure she has chosen, Euphoria holds no big surprises. But better a simple story told well than a complicated one told poorly. Euphoria is a perfectly respectable and reasonable novel, what the critic Laura Miller would call "a down-to-earth and companionable thing" (as opposed to an exalted one). Early on, characters are apt to comment on the power and beauty of words, and words are given import as "real things," especially for Gladdie. There are words characters have never spoken; words that hang in the air; lessons on words, including the power of good words to make the heart glad; young Gladdie's love of the charming "arabesque" and the powerful "sisters"; older Gladdie's appreciation of the word "euphoria." Oddly this attention to words as words ends after the first few chapters, leaving the novel uneven in this regard.

Euphoria is Gault's first novel, but she has published many books previously, including plays and the short story collections Some of Eve's Daughters (1987) and Inspection of a Small Village (1996). Interestingly, a middle-aged Orillia, now a mother herself, appears in "A Burning House" from the latter collection. It is easy to imagine this Orillia sitting down to tea in the kitchen by lamplight with Gladdie and Hilda. 

Where it began with death and new life, Gladdie's strength and Gladdie's regret for Jessie Dole, the novel ends with strength of a new kind: willing acceptance. We see many sides to Gault's female characters, most importantly their strength through difficulties. Some moralizing ties up the novel, but it does so naturally. 

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