Theresa Kishkan, Age of Water Lilies

I finished this novel back around Remembrance Day, fittingly enough, and while I wrote its author immediately to tell her how much I'd enjoyed the book, for a variety of complicated reasons I didn't get around to posting a review here. These things happen. As my students know, it's been a busy few weeks even if one were to think only about school.

Now, I don't mind saying that it's been some time since I've had genuine tears in my eyes while reading a novel, as I did while finishing the second half of Theresa Kishkan's The Age of Water Lilies. This may say more about my usual choice of novels, or about my general callousness, than it does about Kishkan's book, but I really was very greatly moved by her main character, Flora Oakden.

For some reason, though, and at the time I couldn't have said why, I had real trouble settling into The Age of Water Lilies when I started it several weeks earlier. Something to do with the workload, the time of year, and so on: but I didn't feel fully welcomed into it. It wasn't comfortable, and I didn't expect that. The story that gets most of the narrative focus is set in the BC Interior, at a town called Walhachin, so it's part of my extended home (so to speak), and Kishkan's nonfiction has been among my favourite reads over the last 18 months. A recipe for love, no?

Now that I've had time to digest the experience, I think it's related to the clarity of Kishkan's portrayal of the time period of Walhachin's glory (such as it was!). The transplanted Victorian culture of Walhachin just isn't a version of BC I'm used to thinking about, and even though I've almost always known Walhachin's flumes and have both fished and swum in Snohoosh and Vidette Lakes, I hadn't fully recognized their post-Victorian, pre-WWI elements. So, as much as I appreciated Flora and Gus as characters, I didn't feel much intimacy with them: with Gus, maybe, since there are ways in which he feels like an Ian Tyson character -- and that's a high compliment, incidentally -- but not in the transplanted late-Victorian context in which they were living.

Part of my trouble settling in, too, was that I really -- if unconsciously -- wanted to hear Kishkan herself talking about these places and people, since I'm used to reading her essays instead of her fiction. It helped to hear her read some of the pages, because it meant I could hear a little more clearly what she were going for, but I don't think it's a cheat on my part: if I hadn't enjoyed the essays, I don't know I would have had the same trouble with the voice in The Age of Water Lilies!

Death is expected in a historical novel that covers a long period of time, but they really affected me. The permanence of Flora's loss, as Kishkan portrayed it, really shook me. My grandmothers both married men who had come back from the Second World War, but they both lost brothers (one during the war, and one to pneumonia before it), and this novel gave me some very welcome insight into this somewhat mysterious part of their lives. One of them passed away in early 2008, and the other has lost enough of her memory that I don't know I can talk to her about her about her brother Robert, but The Age of Water Lilies gave me two things to hold onto: (1) I wouldn't have known to ask her about him properly before finishing the novel, and (2) I don't think I need to ask her now anyway, because I think that I finally understand something new about the persistence of her grief. This novel gave me both these insights, and I'm grateful for them.

I don't know that The Age of Water Lilies is an easy enough novel to find the readership it deserves, because I do wonder whether I was responding to something a bit prickly about the early sections (rather than just to the difference in voice and the alternate version of my BC and my workload distractions), but my goodness, this is a novel for its author to be proud of. It'll last, this one.


bluebulrush said…
I also enjoyed this novel. It has to do with the persistence of grief, coming to terms with grief, and the role that friendship and community experience plays in that process. I also found the discussion of memory and the transmission of memory (between Flora and Tessa) very powerful. This novel works on several levels. I've read it twice so far now, and found different aspects appealed to me each time. I suspect this is a novel I will return to again.

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