Diane Schoemperlen, Our Lady of the Lost and Found

Two things. First: I’ve always been fascinated by faith. (But don't tell my friend the mad atheist!)

I refer to other people’s faith, of course, since I have no faith of my own – or at least no religious faith. The truth of the matter is that I have great faith in Canadian society’s desire to do better, always better; in literature’s power to express human experience luminously through the failed vehicle of language; and in each person’s ability for both incalculable monstrosity and incalculable generosity.

Second: My bookshelves are dominated by male names, always have been, so I keep reminding myself to make an effort to seek out female writers I’ve not yet read.

These things came together at some point not too long ago, probably at the 2006 Times-Colonist book sale, leading me to pick up Diane Schoemperlen’s 2001 novel Our Lady of the Lost and Found, which is about the visitation of Mary (yes, that Mary) to the home of an unnamed female writer in her mid-40s who lives in a similarly unnamed Ontario city. At first I was really taken by this book, but the last quarter, well… not so much.

It proceeds more or less in two strands, one about the quiet week-long vacation Mary is taking with this woman she hasn’t met before but knows she can trust to keep mum about it all, and one about the history of Mary’s apparitions and the intense faith they’ve generated. The prose is in a style I very much enjoy – conversational, full of detail – and the humour is gently self-deprecating. The narrator describes, for example, how she laughs when by herself, and the precision encapsulates the tone Schoemperlen manages:
a wry smile with my mouth tightly closed, half of it pulling up, the other half pulling down, while repeatedly making short, heavy exhalations through my nose. (212)
Laughing aloud alone is an odd thing, she feels, and so she has this private version. Reading is a private activity, most of the time, so I appreciated the narrator’s own concern with her own and Mary’s privacy. (Have you tried that private laughter since reading the description? Feel familiar?)

For some reason, though, the end of the book gets away from me. There’s an arc imposed on the material right away, because Mary says she’ll stay a week. The narrator begins to talk early on about her solitary adult existence, and naturally that theme becomes more important as Mary’s departure approaches, but I don’t see a reason for the relative incoherence of the last few chapters. Several times the character says some variation of “I am both the victim and the villain of this story” – sometimes “both/and,” “either/or,” “neither/nor” – because it’s important to her that she tell Mary the story of her life. But she doesn’t tell us the story, and the unsatisfyingly elliptical nature of the final quarter of the book drove me mad.

Schoemperlen remarks in her notes at the end that in recent years she’s been increasingly interested in boundaries between truth and fiction, fiction and nonfiction, and so on, so this book also represents a genre study worth examining from that angle. It doesn’t redeem the closing, not in my reading, but it does give a way for me to understand it. I guess.

In sum: I’m delighted to have read another book about faith, and pleased to have found a female author whose short stories I’m looking forward to reading, but disappointed by the artistic move at the end of the novel.


Bobby D. said…
I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a lot of fun to read , very cute, an easy afternoon read. I also bought her book of short stories, not as good.
Bobby D. said…
Bev d'onofrio also wrote a book about mary, I forget the title tho'.
fiona-h said…
Two things (to follow in your footsteps)....

First: Mad atheist? Mad as in "angry"? Or mad as in "terrifyingly insane"?

Second: Faith. You've actually touched upon something I'm considering blogging about one of these days: the difference between "Faith" (as the fideists mean it) and "faith" (as you mean it here - as a near synonym for "trust")
richard said…
As in "madly off in all directions" -- energetic, vigorous. Glad to hear I can talk about faith and not offend you, ya mad thing :-)

I take people's recommendations seriously, D. Chedwick. But while I appreciate your taste for Bob Dylan (particualrly his divine Time Out of Mind), I'm not sure I want to get involved with D'Onofrio's Looking for Mary. I see from a-Googling that it ranked just behind Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet among inspirational books, not my usual genre....
Melwyk said…
I love parts of this book as well. But my much reread favourite of hers is the collection of stories that won the Gov. General's a few years ago, Forms of Devotion
Anonymous said…
My favourite book of all time.Sad,funny, thought -provoking, and about women around the world and their struggles.
richard said…
You know, anon., I still appreciate what Schoemperlen accomplished in this book, but at press time I'm 2/3 of the way through Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. As a consequence I'm thinking about whether I need to re-evaluate things like this book. I'm an atheist, but I've been ok with the idea that there's something redemptive in belief itself. These days, I'm not so sure.

Schoemperlen uses Mary as a narrative engine in this book's terrific job of illuminating the life of a solitary, decent, mid-everything woman, and while the effect remains tremendous, religion remains a collective mania driven by individual hallucination and denial.

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