‘So Much Love’ by Rebecca Rosenblum
To read Toronto writer Rebecca Rosenblum’s first novel, recently nominated for the 2017 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, as mainly a thriller about the mysterious disappearance of two people from their small Ontario town, is to place too much emphasis on the surface of this quietly brilliant novel, overlooking its deeper, perhaps less conspicuous themes and implications.
It is true that the story of Catherine Reindeer’s abduction and captivity in the company of high school student Donny Zimmerman is critical to the framework of So Much Love. Without Catherine and her ordeal at the centre of the story providing a point of connection, the novel operates as essentially a collection of discrete vignettes of the lives of minor, though fascinating and well-drawn, characters. The “worst thing to ever happen to Catherine,” tragic and horrifying to be sure, serves as the novel’s through line. It keeps the story’s momentum going while allowing Rosenblum to digressively explore, through her peripheral characters and their ties to Catherine, the intricacies of intimate relationships, the ways in which love both saves and destroys, and the capacity of art to provide light in dark times.
Of all the narratives connected to Catherine, though, it is the story of young poet Julianna Ohlin that stands out in the novel for its haunting effect and for what we might read into its inclusion. Early in So Much Love we learn that Catherine, at twenty-seven years old, is a university student taking a Canadian poetry class with a Professor Altaris. Prior to her disappearance, she is studying the posthumous publications of Ohlin, a former resident of Catherine’s hometown of Iria and a one-time student of the same university Catherine attends. Ohlin, full of creative promise, died – likely at the hands of a violent husband – in the mid-1990s, before she had the chance to do “the work she was going to do.”
Catherine is struck by the similarities between her life and Ohlin’s: “this poet, Julianna Ohlin, seems to have had a life a lot like Catherine’s, at least up until now. They both waitress, they were both young when they hooked up with their partners, they both liked school and books.” Ohlin “seems like she could be Catherine in another life.” And this may be the point of this seemingly parallel storyline: Ohlin, like Catherine, was a young woman in pursuit of understanding her place in the world, buoyed up by her love of writing poetry – “a feeling of plenty even when she was broke” – and the promise of her first published book. And also like Catherine, Ohlin’s progress toward her future and “the work that was still to come” was interrupted by male violence: “The book, the job, the cat – there were too many things she was doing lately that he didn’t control, and he wanted this victory, or had wanted it in the moment. He wanted her to fall, but didn’t want to admit he made it happen, not even to himself. He hated her. They loved each other.”
Unlike Catherine, though, Ohlin did not survive that violence, her poetry and voice permanently muted. Catherine’s escape from her captor gives her the second chance that Ohlin did not have.
By juxtaposing the lives and tragedies of Julianna Ohlin and Catherine Reindeer, Rosenblum emphasizes the role that art and knowledge play in enriching and even sustaining life. In the darkness of her captor’s basement prison, in the face of pain and terrible abuse, Catherine recalls Ohlin’s poems, reciting them over and over for comfort to herself and Donny, so much so “that they started to feel like prayers.” In the most extraordinary and horrific of circumstances, Ohlin’s focus on the everyday details of life in her poems becomes a kind of balm. “I realized that everything ordinary was what I loved,” Catherine says. “And so I tried to escape in my mind back to those ordinary things by remembering her poems.”
And it is through Catherine’s love of books and reading, a constant in her much-altered life, that she may, we’re led to believe by the novel’s end, be able to move forward in the aftermath of her suffering. With a subtle touch, Rosenblum uses the familiar symbolism of darkness and light in So Much Love, contrasting the gloomy hopelessness of the basement with references to the light Catherine sees when she returns to her university, the light of knowledge: “It’s nearly full dark now but the bright windows of the library stay where they’ve always been, and behind the light, I can see all the books I haven’t yet read.”
So Much Love, a masterfully complex and beautiful novel, is about so many things, but for this reader it is principally about the promise of a young woman reclaiming her voice and her right to be on her way, to do what she loves, and to be the person she wishes to become.
McClelland & Stewart | 304 pages | $24.95 | paper | ISBN# 9780771072437