Monday, April 16, 2012

Books: The Fire Dwellers

Continuing with my Margaret Laurence read-a-thon, I recently finished her fifth novel, The Fire Dwellers (1969). This is the story of Stacey MacAindra (sister to the protagonist of the Laurence's previous novel, A Jest of God). To put it mildly, Stacey is a dissatisfied housewife - but this is far from being a literary version of Desperate Housewives. Laurence's writing is nuanced and layered, Stacey's character is sharp, funny, annoying, strong but confused and lacking will-power. She drinks too much, second-guesses herself constantly and can rarely figure out how to say what she really wants to.

If this sounds tedious to read, I'll admit that at times it was. As with other Laurence characters, sometimes I just want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. But it is a mark of a gifted writer who can create a world within her novels filled with people as we are - filled with unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws.

Although I didn't find this the most satisfying read of the Laurence canon, it is a significant book in many ways. At the time it was published, women's liberation was just moving into general circulation and the idea of writing a novel about a housewife was practically unheard of. It was a bold decision to write about one - and not to make a superhero out of her, but to explore her very humanness.

I found myself  often frustrated with Stacey and her endless worries about her taciturn husband, her brood of 4 children, and her role as wife and mother - she feels trapped in a life that she hadn't bargained for and can see no way out. Yet when I felt that she could be trying harder to move beyond the confines of her narrow role, I realize how much I am a woman living in 2012, not 1969. More than a textbook on feminism or the 'feminine mystique', this novel offers a detailed examination of a culture in which women were not expected, nor barely allowed, to dream beyond having a hard-working husband, well-behaved children, a clean house and a social life of tupperware parties and bridge nights.

In many respects, this book is timeless. Women, especially mothers and partners, will be able to identify with Stacey's insecurities and questions. But in several key ways, this book is also a valuable historic work, showing how women in the 1960s struggled to break the constraints society placed upon them.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't re-read this one, but I'd like to; it's the work of hers that I remember least clearly. Which book of hers do you have up next?