‘Interference’ By Michelle Berry

Book Reviews

Interference coverReviewed by Julienne Isaacs from advance reading copy

Not many books tackle as many individual modes of darkness as Michelle Berry’s fifth novel, Interference. On display here are a potpourri of ills, from cancer, adolescent sexual confusion, pedophilia and misunderstood disability, to marital abuse, abduction, physical disfigurement and plain-old ennui, all rooted in one street in the mythical Ontario town of Parkville.

They’re all announced on the back cover. And if you contemplate the front cover artwork, pale with blanketing snow, an abandoned swing-set boding no good, no good at all, you can almost perceive a thin mist rising from the book, warding you off. You believe you want a beach-worthy novel, a lightweight summer break of a novel, something to take your mind off your own brand of sadness, your own normal blend of happiness and melancholy.

My friend, this is the book for you. Ominous as its themes may be, Interference is tightly plotted and neatly executed, very nearly perfectly paced, and satisfyingly complex—but it is also escapism in its purest form, and a sheer delight to read.

The inhabitants of Parkville’s Edgewood Drive are normal, familiar. Ralph and Claire are coping with the demands of chemotherapy on Claire’s cancer-stricken body; their teenage children are attempting to cope. Tom and Maria are occupied with worry over their obsessive-compulsive daughter, Becky, and ignoring the problems in their marriage. Across the street, Trish, a busy mother and small-business owner, cleans up after her kids and screens all her calls when she’s finally alone in the house. Next door to Trish lives Dayton, fresh off the plane from California with a new baby—and no sign of a husband. A few streets away live peripheral characters—Michael, a disfigured car-wash employee, and Leah, the mother of a disabled fifteen-year-old who haunts the schoolyard’s play structure.

Berry crafts chapters as meticulously built short stories: each takes up a different character’s story, telling it from the inside out. A few of these will be familiar to readers of The Winnipeg Review (Chapter One, published as “Leaf Day” in the June 2011 issue), The New Quarterly (Chapter Two), The Toronto Quarterly (Chapter Nine) and Joyland Magazine (Chapter Fourteen).

Interwoven story cycles are an established form for Canadian writers, with Alice Munro the most celebrated of these. Berry’s writing fits neatly into this subgenre, but Interference’s firmly anchored setting distinguishes her work from other writers—such as Rosemary Nixon (Are You Ready to Be Lucky?)—who take a rather more free-form approach to interlinkages between protagonists.

In Interference, each chapter has its own natural arc, its own momentum. But the fact that these stories can stand alone doesn’t make the novel less cohesive.

For one thing, the women of Edgewood Drive are united in their love of hockey. They are all—or will all soon be—members of the Senior Ladies Leisure League—the white team—that meets weekly through the fall, winter and early spring to battle the red team, the grey team on the ice.

For another thing, the characters move in and out of each other’s chapters like ghosts through walls. They co-inhere, to put it another way, so that Parkville operates like a real community, with cross-communication, gossip and genuine fellow-feeling weaving together into a fine mesh. No one is ever alone for long in Interference before they find someone watching. Occasionally the watching is manifested as voyeurism (as when the disfigured Michael admits to looking in windows at night) or predation (as when the head of a pedophilia ring peppers the neighbourhood with dirty pamphlets). But it is more often manifested as care—the normal, healthy kind of watching that keeps communities safe.

This kind of care—neighbourliness—starts, for Berry, within families. Claire, obsessing over her possibly-impending death from cancer, is physically reduced to a shell of her former self. Emotionally, however, she has become bear-like, magnificent with a passion to live, with anger at her illness, anger at others’ attempts to diminish her experience. The people who best perceive her beauty, heightened by her illness, are her family.

Coming home from a walk through the snow, her husband, Ralph, sees her illuminated in the living room window:

She is lit up from the lights inside the house and she almost glows. She has taken off the silly pink hat and her fuzzy head shines. Ralph looks at her, watches her, takes her in. His heart aches, his chest splinters again and again. This, Ralph thinks, I won’t forget.

For Ralph’s family, attention is key to love: attention to beauty, attention to the present moment. “Sometimes there isn’t enough room in your head for all the things in the world,” Ralph muses. “Sometimes there is.”

But care ultimately radiates from families to the community at large, with characters metaphorically “running interference” for each other—as when the gentle Dayton rescues Maria, stricken with crippling back pain on the front stoop of her home, moves her carefully inside, and sits beside her as Maria gasps for breath on the kitchen floor.

By contrast, the moments when Interference’s characters fail to really see each other stand out in sharp relief, but even this sort of failure operates as a metaphor. Each member of a community will only catch glimpses of the interior lives of her neighbours if she resorts to peering in the windows, rather than expending energy by building friendships. Admittance into the most sacred of spaces must be given; it can’t be snatched. It must never be stolen.

Berry’s writing is taut with energy; phrases are conservative, spare. She wastes no time on self-examination at the expense of narrative flow. Wherever possible, she relies on symbols rather than summaries, dialogue rather than exposition. Interference’s one flaw is perhaps its seriousness—Berry has no difficulty changing registers, but rarely uses humour to her advantage. While this serves to build helpful tension toward the novel’s satisfying conclusion, and keeps the reader immersed in its intrigues, it does little to lighten the mood.

Gravity, however, does not make Interference a heavy read—it only lends emotional heft to a book that would be a good companion for a day at the beach.

ECW | 282 pages |  $18.95 | paper | ISBN #  978-1770411982

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Isaacs Julienne

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg freelance journalist and an associate editor at the Winnipeg Review.