‘The Apple House’ by Gillian Campbell

Book Reviews

Apple House coverReviewed by Christina Penner

Gillian Campbell’s first novel, The Apple House, is a poignant and personal book about the importance of belonging, especially in times of great grief. Near the beginning of the novel is a stunning scene where the protagonist Imogene, a young woman in her late-twenties, is driving through rural Quebec with her husband Thomas, a shoemaker, in the backseat of a taxi. They are delivering a pair of shoes when the taxi is in a terrible accident. Imogene survives unscathed and in beautiful first-person narration, she tells of waiting for Thomas to wake up in the hospital. When a nurse tells her Thomas has died from his injuries, Imogene puts down her Reader’s Digest and goes home to find her husband.

Imogene wanders through their apartment on top of the shoe-shop, calling out his name, and engaging Thomas in a ghostly game of “cache-cache.” When she still can’t find her dear Thomas, she falls asleep in their bed, believing Thomas will find her while she sleeps. The scene, with its shell-shocked narration, captures the wide-eyed disbelief and the immense foundation-rocking grief of losing one’s spouse.

Much of the rest of the novel narrates Imogene’s attempts to survive Thomas’s death. Once the shock of the trauma wears off Imogene returns to her parents’ home where they nourish Imogene while she grieves. Imogene’s childhood home is homey, messy and kind. When we are first introduced to Imogene’s parents her mother is cooking an omelette wearing a red silk jumpsuit which her father (wearing “his gardening outfit”) has affectionately dubbed “’her parachute.’”

While her mother frowns at the omelette on the stove she must dodge Tillie, the family dog, and five recipe cards hanging from the ceiling—an attempt to teach Imogene’s intellectually-challenged brother how to cook. Instead of being caricatures of bumbling domesticity, Imogene’s parents emerge as considerate and nuanced, and decent cooks: “It seemed a miracle that such a delicate flavour could have been produced from such chaos.” This kitchen is in the home of four adults: the parents, the brother (who is in-between odd jobs) and the widowed and grieving Imogene.

That motif of adults moving back in with their parents during times of trauma is repeated next door when Imogene’s childhood friend, recently separated from his wife, moves back into his mother’s house. But although Imogene and her friend are lucky enough to be able to return to their parents in times of trouble, there is one character who is not so lucky:  Swen—a childhood friend of Thomas’s who calls himself Thomas’s foster brother. Imogene has no patience for Swen’s drug-dealing and intervening ways.

Although Thomas, when he was alive, encouraged Imogene to be generous with Swen, Imogene has a history of treating Swen with disdain, and on one occasion, even violence. When Thomas dies, Swen has lost his only remaining family: he, like Thomas, was raised in an orphanage. But when Thomas was lucky enough to be adopted by the local shoemaker and his wife, Swen, despite holding onto Thomas’s adoptive mother’s legs, had to return to the orphanage and the abuse he was forced to endure there. Swen’s damaged self has no parents to return to so he moves into the Apple House—the dilapidated house two doors down from Imogene’s parents’ home.

Not only is the Apple House in the neighborhood, it’s also the house that Imogene and Thomas had recently offered to purchase. Since Thomas’s death Imogene allowed the offer to expire, and the owner leased the house to Swen. Whereas Imogene uses her family home to learn to live with her grief, Swen uses the Apple House as a base for his drug dealing operations. Heartbreakingly, Swen demonstrates the wounds of rejection and abuse through his treatment of his guard dog, Lucy. The childhood home, it seems, is the first scene of acceptance or rejection, and determines the way people treat others and themselves for the rest of their lives.

This examination of domestic acceptance and rejection is only one of the ways The Apple House investigates ideas of belonging and community. Significantly, Imogene’s Anglophone family’s house is located between the derelict Apple House and the closely-knit French town Saint-Ange-du-Lac. Although Imogene and her family work in and frequent the town, there is a significant divide of language and culture between the town and Imogene’s family.

Of course for Imogene this divide changes when Imogene meets Thomas and his Francophone family and is compelled by love to learn French so she can communicate with them. Eventually Imogene drops out of her classes at the English college and begins to work at the shoe store, first as Thomas’s girlfriend, then as his wife, and finally as his widow. She feels her acceptance in the town is tentative, especially when she finds, upon Thomas’s death, that she is no longer able to remember a single word of French. The language of love, she muses, has become her language of loss.

As one might expect in a story narrated by the shoemaker’s widow, there are many shoes in this novel. My favourite scene is when Imogone recounts how she and Thomas first met. Beleaguered with large feet, Imogene could not find any shoes that fit her long feet. The novel offers a funny and compassionate description of Imogene as a young waitress who tries squishing her feet into various inappropriate and painful shoes. When she finally takes her father’s advice to get custom-made shoes, she ends up receiving the first pair of women’s shoes that Thomas, then his father’s apprentice, has made. Imogene is appalled by their ugliness but when she tries them on, she recounts:

…these shoes, so grotesque-looking in the box, seemed to mould themselves to my feet. I walked the length of the carpet and back on a rising wave of euphoria, picturing myself dashing about La Dolce Vita, tossing out orders to the kitchen, raking in tips, and talking back to the maître d’.

Unfortunately (but not really) her new shoes develop a squeak in the heel and to her great humiliation she must return to the shoe store. Thomas fixes the heel and begins to court Imogene by giving her a stylish pair of green sandals, which she is still wearing after ten years of marriage.

There are other shoes, too. Imogene’s life as a child is told by a third-person narrator and provides interesting context for Imogene’s adult life. As a child, Imo was fascinated by the neighbouring Apple House (yes, the same house that Swen eventually moves into), and is particularly intrigued by the discarded wooden prosthetic leg once worn by the man who lived in the Apple House. Eventually that wooden leg and its never-worn shoes are returned to Imogene, where she keeps some of the shoes as a victory over her childhood trauma related to the prosthetic leg.

Back in the shoe store, Swen is forever taking shoes, including a very expensive pair of Italian loafers that Imogene, in a moment of compassion she herself is unable to explain, agrees to not charge him for. An eccentric neighbor, Madame Poulin, who appears to live alone but is catered to by her grandchildren, frequently shuffles into the store wearing her pom-pom slippers. And despite trying on shoes for hours, she has never yet bought a single pair.

Shoes and prosthetic limbs; loss and trauma; wounds that heal and wounds that don’t; homes that nurture and homes that don’t; belonging and living on the edge of acceptance; English and French; language as love and language as loss. These themes and images are gently, and often beautifully, told in The Apple House.

However, in the intersections of these ideas the novel misses some opportunities. Whereas Imogene eventually regains her footing and strides back into her shoe store and surrounding community, other characters are not so lucky. Madame Poulin continues to shuffle in her slippers, and I, for one, would have been interested to know if Imogene’s recent widowhood gave her more understanding of Poulin’s inability (perhaps uninterest) in purchasing a new pair of shoes, both figuratively and literally. Despite Imogene’s recent reliance on her parents, she demonstrates no new-found compassion for Swen—rather she lives in further fear of him. Perhaps most missing is any mention of Thomas’s shoes.

That is, in a novel interested in the accoutrements of the body, I wonder what Imogene did with the relics of Thomas’s life? She does hire her brother to declutter the shoe-shop and the apartment above it, commenting “It can be a slow process, unearthing the past and then deciding to bury it again.” But my guess is there would have been beauty in the details: Did Imogene wear Thomas’s socks and use his toothbrush? Did she find tender mementos from Thomas’s childhood? And, most notably, what does Imogene, with her uncommonly large feet, do with Thomas’s shoes?

Instead of treading into these intersections, the novel ends with a beautiful discussion of language and space. Imogene eventually realizes the shoe shop in the village has become her home, especially because she feels close to Thomas’s ghost and memories in their apartment. Slowly the words and grammar of her adopted French language return as Imogene rebuilds her life around an evolving, exciting, and slightly terrifying new development.

Brindle & Glass | 240 pages |  $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1897151938

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Christina Penner

Christina Penner is the author of the novel Widows of Hamilton House. She lives in Winnipeg, where she teaches in the computer science department at the University of Manitoba.