‘Arrhythmia’ by Alice Zorn

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Beverly Akerman

Though set a mere decade ago, on the cusp of the new millennium, Arrhythmia is an impressively old-fashioned novel based on the ancient and captivating geometry of the triangle. The love triangle, that is.

Perhaps only a science nerd gone literary would find it peculiar that a book about a gastroenterology department secretary would employ, as its central motif, a dysfunction of the heart. But that’s just one of the mysteries of Alice Zorn’s second book and first novel, which follows on the heels of her 2009 debut story collection, Ruins and Relics.

Zorn, who hails from Ontario but has lived in Montreal for years, has written an English book about multiple overlapping relationship triads in French Montreal.

Her main character is Joelle, a blond ditherer of exceptionally mousy temperament. Joelle is married to Marc, whose meticulous nurse’s heartbeat is probably set via OCD. As the novel opens, in the winter of 1999, Marc is about to cheat on Joelle, his wife of 12 years (no kids), with Ketia (I am not revealing any more than the back cover blurb does).

Ketia is a nubile young nurse-in-training from a Haitian diaspora family.

Meanwhile Diane, Joelle’s somewhat bossy BFF, happily plays house with her Moroccan lover Nazim. The third side of their triangle is Nazim’s family. Zorn takes pains to explain the far-away family’s point of view, but we’re still left with the politically incorrect truth that, in their universe, by living with Nazim sans marriage, Diane would be considered a whore. So he simply neglects to mention her. This omission loses its lustre when Nazim’s sister Ghada announces she’s coming to Montreal to procure a bride for him.

Despite its brace of female protagonists, virtually the entire plot of Arrhythmia is put in motion by the male characters. Marc, the older man who should know better, pursues Ketia with a single-minded lust that would turn the head of the most chaste of romance heroines. Diane’s life is plunged into chaos by Nazim’s decision to keep their relationship from his family. And Joelle, despite noting that she and Marc no longer engage in marital relations, apparently hasn’t a clue that whatever love Marc felt for her has flat-lined. His feelings for Joelle (we are informed) oscillate between irritation and disgust.

These women are reacting, not acting. Things are done to them, done despite them. They are no more the stars of their own life stories than are Austen’s governesses.

The novel is told in four parts (the fifth part is basically epilogue). The main characters are introduced, and the narrative shifts with aplomb between the various points of view and varying Montreal communities— Chinese, Haitian, Moroccan, and Quebecois. Zorn’s scenes at the hospital and the gastroenterology suite are convincing, possibly informed by the author’s real-life part-time work as a hospital clerk, not to mention her wait for a heart valve job (as related in her blog posting here).

The story finds its beat around page 70, where the major episode of arrhythmia occurs. In the hospital where Joelle, Marc, and Ketia work, one of the patients under Ketia’s care has a medication stopped prior to a medical procedure. Another drug should have been prescribed to replace it, one that would have lowered the risk of hemorrhage. But another drug is not prescribed. And Ketia, the rhythm of her professionalism off kilter because of her turbulent affair, fails to pick up on the mistake.

Suddenly, longstanding advice against romance in the workplace makes more sense to me. Or, as Olympia Dukakis’ character in Moonstruck put it, “Don’t shit where you eat.”

Maybe this is why Ketia is punished so severely. But, again, this fallen woman motif feels curiously antiquated, not to mention unjust. After all, Marc is the one who has broken his wedding vows; he’s also a decade older than Ketia, and the instigator of the affair besides.

From this episode of arrhythmia onward, the narrative moves at a much better clip and is fleshed out by a number of secondary characters: Ketia’s materialistic sister Gabrielle, her salt of the earth mother, and, coincidentally, Joelle’s odious ex-husband Emile (is there more than one hospital in Montreal? Yes, there is. But you wouldn’t think so from this novel).

And so the rich panoply of Montreal types stumble along through the city’s dark season of discontent, some getting their just desserts, others not, goosed by fear of the upcoming Y2K.

Though they don’t all live happily ever after, the author manages to wrangle all these disparate affairs of the heart to tidy conclusions. Yet this look at life, love, and Montreal through a glass darkly lacks a vital humour and spark, the warmth that breathes life into characters the reader can care about and root for.

NeWest | 304 pages |  $21.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1897126806

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Beverly Akerman

Beverly Akerman’s story collection, The Meaning of Children, won the David Adams Richards Prize. Published by Exile Editions in 2011, it made the Top 10 for the CBC – Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest and is now available on Kindle. She lives in Montreal and blogs here.