Prairie Fire Review - What I'm Trying to Say is Goodbye

Reviewed by: Faith Johnston

If you don't know what it's like to long for a drink, to succumb and then suffer the consequences, Lois Simmie will guide you through the process. Her protagonist is trying to endure sobriety and eke out a living as superintendent of an apartment block in Victoria inhabited by a group of quirky (sometimes too quirky) seniors. The hours weigh heavily on his shoulders. Occasionally, if he doesn't feel too restless, he visits his mother, a strong, sensible woman who loves a game of Scrabble and doesn't offer any advice, but the rest of the time, if he isn't eating a cheap meal, alone, at the Bay cafeteria, he's wrestling with a vacuum cleaner, or drinking sludge coffee at an AA meeting, or pausing on the way home at the door of a bar, longing for comfort.

This is an ambitious novel about aging, alocholism, and family connections, told from the points of view of Matthew, a former journalist who has lost both his wife and his job to the bottle, and his grandson, Sam, who lives on an up-island acreage that has become home to a cult-like group of fundamentalist Christians. That is Simmie's first challenge, creating two narrators: one, a sixty-year-old insomniac, panting for a drink, and the other, a twelve-year-old who hates his stepfather and just wants life to be the way it was before. She succeeds admirably on both counts.

On a trip up-island with his ex-wife to visit their daughter and grandson, Matthew's irritability, which is never far from the surface, explodes in a confrontation with his son-in-law, the Jesus freak. The dynamics of this tense meeting are a wonder to behold. Everyone knows what is about to happen--they've obviously seen it all before--but no one can do a thing to stop the momentum.

In another memorable scene, Matthew accompanies his AA mentor, Marty, on an emergency call. They find a middle-aged man, in the last stages of liver failure, passed out in the bedroom, while his wife, snug in her armchair nest (Scotch, cigarettes, and remote control, all at her fingertips) blames them for causing a fuss and spoiling her plans for a Caribbean cruise. With a few deft and devastating strokes Simmie has created a portrait of a marriage and of a lifestyle.

Unfortunately, about two-thirds through, the plot takes over and events move swiftly in a bizarre direction. There is a murder, a chase, and finally a rescue. I must confess that I couldn't put the book down until I knew the outcome, but I did find the last part of the novel rushed and the ending a little too neat. It is the characters who will stick in my mind, and the ever-present drizzle of winter in Victoria.

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