Many years ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I did an MA in English and wrote my thesis on Audrey Thomas. Just in case you were wondering, the thesis was called Mother Tongues: Language and Maternity in the Fictions of Audrey Thomas, and one of the eight zillion things I disagreed with my thesis supervisor about was that I had originally written “in the Fiction of Audrey Thomas” in the title, and she insisted on Fictions. And that is one reason among many why I never purused a career in Academia. But. I. Digress.
Audrey Thomas’s early work, particularly her early novels Mrs. Blood and Blown Figures, are extremely postmodern and experimental, so much so that I recall one critric saying of Blown Figures that you could call it a book, but not a novel. Her later work has become much more conventional in form, which I personally (not being a huge fan of postmodern experimentation for its own sake) find allows her fine ear for language and strong characterization to shine through.
Isobel Gunn is a slim historical novel about a girl from the Orkney Islands in the early 1800s who disguises herself as a man to go work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in what was then called Rupert’s Land. The work is hard, but it suits Isobel better than life as a poor woman in rural Scotland. In fact, she’s quite pleased with her life in Canada — until her secret identity is revealed when she inconveniently gives birth.
This sounds like a far-fetched plot, but in fact it is loosely based on a real historical event. The supposed young man who was discovered in fact to be a young woman in childbirth is mentioned in historical record. Most of the rest of the story, and particular the characters of Isobel and her would-be friend and protector Magnus Inkster, arises from Thomas’s rich imagination. Two remote places — northern Scotland and northern Canada — in a long-ago era, come brilliantly to life in this short but powerful novel.
I had a little trouble getting into this book because at the very beginning, Thomas plays around with time and point of view, jumping to the middle of the story and leaving us unclear as to who is telling the story. Maybe I’m just slow, but it took me a few pages to sort things out. Once the narrator was well established and the story got going, though, I was hooked.
At the end, Thomas plays with time again, finishing the novel with an epilogue that jumps forward more than a hundred years from the story she’s been telling. The characters in this very brief epilogue are the distant descendants of those in the main story, and they are so shadowy they aren’t even given names. Yet when the book ended with a tragedy in the epilogue, tears sprang to my eyes. I found myself crying as I hadn’t cried for the main characters whose sad story I had been caught up in all through the book. Somehow, that ending resonated like a bell, picking up the vibrations and tones of all the sorrow that had happened a hundred years earlier. Isobel Gunn is both tragic and hopeful — a memorable novel that explores the many layers of love and how it can transform our lives.