Theresa Kishkan, The Weight Of The Heart

"The closer I got to Lytton, the worse I felt" (p7): the first sentence of Theresa Kishkan's poignant, piercing novella The Weight of the Heart pushed me to a wry smile the first time I read it, immediately on its publication in 2020.

A very small town clinging to a heat-baked landscape, and long showing signs of capitalism's fiercer pressures, Lytton has always appealed only to some eyes. Not knowing what was to come in these pages, or over the next 18 months, I couldn't help but imagine why a person might not want to visit the place.

But of course with Lytton having burned to the ground now, a year before the time of my writing, and with construction not having seriously begun all this time later, I'd imagine that everyone would be feeling worse and worse as they approach Lytton.

The Weight of the Heart is historical fiction, but in a very special sense. It's set in the 1970s (1976 or 1977, according to one of Kishkan's blog posts), and Kishkan's narrator is imagining these places as they were in the 1930s and 1950s, when the novelists Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson travelled through. From our bedazzling 2020s, these periods are all historical, but of course that's not all what's normally captured by that term "historical fiction," and that's not what this is.

Instead, the novel was written about a past version of Lytton (of interior BC more broadly) at a time when Lytton, Deadman Valley, Ashcroft, and similar places were still recognizably accessible. That's not the case now. We live in a different time, yes, so this fiction's "historical," but now that the same places have been changed irrevocably due to climate change, now that the rupture of climate change has been made concretely visible, I'm not sure that at bottom, these are even the same places any longer.

After the fires of June 2021, The Weight of the Heart gives us a crucial perspective, but not just on British Columbia of the 1970s, 1950s, and 1930s.

In ways I'm still trying to articulate, and not just on this blog, this novel seems to me now unwittingly (or maybe wittingly) to use BC's literary past as a portal through which to understand the effects on culture of climate change. In other words, for what The Weight of the Heart reveals about our shared climate future, the important historical gap for this work of "historical fiction" isn't only the one between the 2020s and those earlier decades, but the one between 2020 and post-2021.

But what's the novel actually about? Granted, I can't stop thinking about what The Weight of the Heart means in this cultural sense I've been yammering interminably about thus far, but I'm an English professor, so it's an occupational hazard. Time to talk of the novel itself, which includes exactly enough Emmylou Harris to make it feel genuine.

Our companion through most of its pages is Isabel, or Izzy, a grad student working on the fiction of novelists Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. She's travelling from Victoria to Lytton and beyond, ostensibly to trace her novelists' footsteps but more pressingly to remember her brother James, who had drowned some months earlier while kayaking the Thompson River on a break from his archaeological work in the area. His body had washed up in Lytton, where the Thompson meets the Fraser, and so for Izzy, this is a dual pilgrimage. As a result, she's seeking to immerse herself in history both familial and literary, but at the same time she's constantly at risk of immersing herself, suicidally, in water.

The sibling relation between the bereft Izzy and her lamented brother James, I should say, is unlike anything I can recall reading. This is a novel of love, more specifically of a lost but enduring love, but it's also without romance as such. For some readers, this element alone will give The Weight of the Heart a long resonance, deservedly so.

That's a rich and complex setup, but it's a novella, so the plot isn't dense. I love how so much gravity is communicated so lightly, through devices like gestures, images, echoes. In a formal sense, Kishkan has blended traces of her narrator's literary heroes, Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson, and I say that not to minimize the achievement of The Weight of the Heart but to highlight it.

The somewhat fragmentary nature of the book certainly reminded me of Watson's The Double Hook, which I reread for probably the sixth or seventh time in order to write this piece, and which to me remains endlessly appealing even if it's also impenetrable. (Seriously, I can't make sense of it, never have been able to, but I love it regardless.) That's especially true of the sections where Kishkan's book speaks in the voice of non-human characters, as in those entitled "What the Magpies on Highway 12 Remember" (p40) or "What the Bonaparte River Remembers" (p93). Watson gives you in her novel the least amount of detail you might need, and while Kishkan gives you more than that, she does share a similarly powerful refusal to explain what's going on with the book's sequencing and structure.

The novel's main voice, though, has much in common with Wilson's in Swamp Angel, though it's possible that this is more simply explained as the effect of each writer's parallel choice of a fairly direct, somewhat casual tone. (Given the care Kishkan takes with her work, I strongly doubt it, but one never knows!)

Izzy meets a number of people in the broader area, and a number of non-human beings as well. She shares brief moments of meaning with them, ranging up to the length of an afternoon's rafting trip, but like Maggie Lloyd, Izzy lives her life in constant thinking, and so each of these relationships seems freighted with potential even beyond what we're privy to as readers.

But that's enough plot, I think, or I'll start giving things away.

There's meaning in the land, in The Weight of the Heart. If we weren't facing a climate crisis, and if the entire village of Lytton hadn't burned to the ground in 2021, the temperature 5ยบC warmer than had ever been recorded in Canada, it'd still be a classic BC novel.

But the Totem Motel, the Jade Springs Restaurant, a bungalow that looks like maybe the heroine's in Wilson's Hetty Dorval, "its windows yoke-yellow with sunlight" (p45): that's all burned now, all gone, all, and who knows what more transformations will come with each new year?

The Weight of the Heart is a remarkable novel, and timely. Everyone with an interest in BC literature needs to read it twice, and I have so much more to say that you should be glad I've managed to stop here.

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