Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley begins her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell like this:
When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it, to yourself, or to someone else.
And it’s interesting in light of what Saskatoon-based writer Suzanne North seems up to in her first literary novel, Flying Time: how we remember things that happen to us; how we store them; how we over-remember events, and go over them again and again; how indescribable memories become stories; how we move forward and aft and change details in the telling.
Suzanne North, who is known for her Phoebe Fairfax mystery series [Healthy, Wealthy & Dead (1994), Seeing is Believing (1996), and Bones to Pick (2002)] has also worked writing for CBC Television, for magazines and, like Polley, for documentary films. She is a chronic storyteller, engaged in a dialogue on the ways stories work, and consequently so is her Flying Time protagonist, Kay Jeynes.
Flying Time is set in the present day, but the vast majority of it is spent diving into the past. Kay, an elderly woman, finds herself taking a memoir-writing course. In a series of ten writing exercises assigned to her, North sets up the structure for Kay to reminisce on the most significant events of her life. Each of the writing assignments is linked back to the most important period and most influential person in Kay’s life, her time working for Hero Miyashita, the only Japanese businessman in the Calgary of 1939.
In 1939 Kay is nineteen years old, and working class. Mr. Miyashita, who becomes an unlikely friend, is much older, wealthy, well travelled, schooled at Oxford. He is an avid photographer of the nearby mountains and the fossils found in the area. And he is an exile in Calgary. Kay is put to work in the Miyashita Industries office, organizing the many file cabinets of Mr. Miyashita’s photographs, negatives stored between glassine paper, and contact sheets. The paintings and photos of the mountains and the fossils that hang in Miyashita’s spacious office offer a barely discernible glimpse of a larger context. North gives the reader the gist of geological time in which to set the routines that Kay falls into working at the Miyashita Industries office day after day. It’s a rather spectacular scale that then narrows into the pinpoint of personal experience.
It’s through Kay’s recollections of this period in her life that this story is told. But Flying Time is not just a story unfolding, it’s a thinking-through of how we remember. Kay writes,
Do you ever get the feeling that everything you have ever seen, heard, read, or said is stored away somewhere in your brain? There it lies like silt at the bottom of a pond, smooth and undisturbed. Then a pebble drops and churns it up and tiny particles float to the surface.
Some of our memories are clear; the weather on our sixteenth birthdays for instance, North writes. Somehow we are capable of remembering many strange details, the books other people were reading at one time, our friend’s bedrooms, our parents’ bedrooms, the captain’s name on the vessel for the Royal visit. It’s all in there somewhere.
There are painful memories in this book, which linger around the reader. A church talent night, told in the style of flipping through an idyllic album of snapshots, ends with a cowardly hate crime. A trip to the Banff Springs hotel on a photography trip affords witness to the ease at which racism operates in groups.
It’s not difficult to anticipate what’s coming in Flying Time. There are no surprises in a book that begins in 1939 and tells readers that its scope is three years. December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor, is looming in the reader’s mind, and so are the freezing of Japanese assets, the seizure of Japanese properties by the Canadian government, and the Japanese internment camps.
What Suzanne North does to set her story apart is to give her readers a first person narrative set in both the present and the past, offering two points of view from the same character. James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, possibly western literature’s quintessential novel on the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, is nodded to in Flying Time, in its film adaptation that is. Jones’s title, taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem, signals a sweeping of time that North attempts through her narrative of recollection.
The last 120 pages or so is the story we are anticipating. An incredible adventure for the twenty-one-year-old Kay, Mr. Miyashita asks her to travel to Hong Kong as his representative to bring back a valuable family heirloom. All the while the Japanese navy is moving into position for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s her naivete, her youth, and her fall into love that puts the Miyashitas in grave danger.
Flying Time is about how people used to talk, how they used to think. It’s about how a city used to be. It’s a story about memory, of civic and national tragedy, set against the epochs of geological time that have been brushed to the surface. Sarah Polley describes the world of experience and memory as ‘a dark roaring,’ as ‘a wreckage.’ Suzanne North’s Flying Time steps out of the no man’s land of memory and into the world of language and story-telling..
Brindle & Glass | 288 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927366233