Sunday, September 11, 2005

Anne Hines, The Spiral Garden, 2005.

A Globe & Mail review from the same week as One Foot in Heaven pointed me to this book.

So. First of all, the basic plot is as follows: the Rev. Ruth Broggan, a (it's called something else, but it's quite obviously) United church minister moves--not of her own volition--to a much smaller and older church in Toronto than where she had been. She's met by inertia, not all that unusual for a parish: the parish is quite set in its ways, and resists any ideas she has for growth. She feels caught, snagged in a mire that seems hard to escape. The depth of her isolation is brought home in part by the way the story is told: what we read are her EMails and letters, her sermons and her thoughts--and we don't see replies thereto, but do read of her wanting to hear more from her friends, all of whom are at a distance. The story at this point is poignant, and seems to accurately capture the difficulties and challenges that face a minister who doesn't seem to meet the people of her congregation where they are. Perhaps the most interesting moment, for me, is when Ruth speaks of a talk with a neighbouring rabbi:
"As the rabbi got up to leave, he said, 'Well, if there's any way I can return the favour, just let me know.' And I said, 'Actually, there is a way. You can tell me how we know there really is a God.'" (79).
His response isn't what Ruth wants to hear, doesn't really help her--but the way the story is told, we know that not much can help Ruth. She retreats into her manse, promising to stay there until God speaks to her.

Then the television cameras and the reporters arrive on her lawn.

Much of the rest of the book is told--again in notes and messages, EMails and short and scattered writings--from the perspective of the people affected by her absence, and then her re-emergence. This section is where the book gets weird. The first part is almost a neat study of parish dynamics, and the second is an odd mix of hagiography and a postmodern, new-age-y mélange of feel-good, non-denominational (and inter-religious) spirituality. There's little I can say about this section without revealing too much, but there are some moving bits despite the oddness.

One of my favourite bits in this section are Kit's diaries. Kit is one of Ruth's best friends, who unrequitedly and erotically loves Ruth, and tells of what must be simultaneously both a lovely and a frustrating return of agape. The diaries are moving in their depiction of an interesting and thoroughly self-involved woman. The book then comes to an ending that is both unexpected and the only possible ending for such a story; I felt it to be thoroughly unsatisfying.

The book is very well written, and I'm glad I picked it up. I did, however, enjoy the first and more realistic part of it much more than the second that wanders into a weird example of magic realism that never quite anchors itself in a world other than our own, nor adequately critiques this world.