Angie Abdou is a boundary-pusher. Whether it’s emotional pain or physical exertion, she brings her characters to the limits of human endurance. 2006’s Anything Boys Can Do, a collection of short stories, explores female sexual politics. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, a finalist in CBC’s 2011 Canada Reads, is the story of two athletes training for the Olympics. The Canterbury Trail (2011) follows a troupe of skiers journeying up and over a mountain.
Between is a natural follow-up to all of these themes, and one way or another, it tackles them all again: sex, politics, athleticism, even mountains, if you can count entitlement, consumerism and cultural barriers as metaphorical mountains.
Vero and her husband Shane are average middle-class Canadians: she’s an editor for a vehicle manufacturing company, he’s a pharmacist. They live in a large home in middle-class mountainous Canada with their two children, two cars and too many bicycles, which Shane rides compulsively. All seems normal on the outside—but Vero is on the breaking point, overwhelmed by the challenges of balancing career and motherhood, her sense of personal worth almost smothered into nonexistence. In an attempt to save their disintegrating marriage, and Vero’s sanity, they hire a nanny—a Filipino woman named Ligaya—who carries secret burdens of her own.
The potential political pitfalls lining Between’s pages should already be clear. Middle-class Canadian couple struggles to embody middle-class Canadian ideal, hires third-world import to do the dirty work while they attempt to revitalize their marriage might be the novel’s subtitle—and at first glance Between seems to be granting legitimacy to this highly problematic crisis.
But Abdou is shrewd: while Vero and Shane’s (hashtag) First World Problems are readily apparent, they cannot be written off, for Abdou attends to them with an intense emotional realism. And no attitudes in Between are easy to summarize or critique—let alone condemn or defend. Everything is simply laid bare to the reader: Ligaya’s loneliness and culture shock, Vero’s depression, Shane’s helplessness. And the overarching consumerist philosophy that unites all three—if I had this my life would be fixed—makes them makes them familiar to readers also struggling with consumerism.
Vero, pre-nanny, is a hot mess. Some of Between’s edgiest passages, emotionally speaking, can be found near the beginning of the novel, as Vero folds laundry, cleans up after her three-year-old, Eliot, and baby, Jamal, and tries to remember why her life matters at all. At the limit of her energy, she retreats to a closet with two bottles of wine and sits in the darkness, leaving voicemail messages for her friend:
She thinks of saying, I’m drunk on the pantry floor. “Parenting’s hard,” she says instead, her tongue slow and heavy. “Whatever made us do it? I mean, really, imagine trying to sell this experience to someone, if we hadn’t all bought it already. Here’s the pitch: You’ll get pregnant. Your body will warp in ways you hadn’t thought possible. It’ll never be the same again. You’ll pee your pants for months afterward, maybe forever. Delivering a baby will hurt until you think you’ll die. You’ll wish for death …”
Ligaya—or LiLi, as the family renames her—isn’t the ideal solution Vero and Shane have hoped for: granted, she keeps everything perfectly clean and the children tidied away, and puts food on the table. But she resists Vero’s efforts to befriend her, to get close to her. To put it another way, a part of Ligaya refuses colonization. Vero can see grief close under Ligaya’s efficient surface, but when entrance to it is denied, Vero lapses into daydreams of an idealized friendship: “They could talk about loneliness, not like sisters, maybe, but like friends. Even good friends. LiLi would admit, Yes, yes, I am lonely. Vero imagines them having this conversation cross-legged on LiLi’s single bed, under the posters that LiLi has never taken down.”
Ligaya’s personal struggles are revealed, in slim occasional chapters, in their own right. And she is, indeed, lonely. When Vero and Shane go away on holiday—part of the marriage-revitalization project—she takes the boys into her bed so she can fall asleep close to their warmth: “They are good boys, these two. She puts her nose close to Eliot’s hair and lets the scent of baby shampoo carry her to sleep. It is a luxury, she knows, an indulgence. But she takes it.”
Vero’s white-washed, polite Canadian complicity in a culturally-acceptable system of social hierarchy, is a dark spot staining her conscience that Ligaya prevents her from eradicating through friendship.
But the chief crisis in Between comes when Vero and Shane escape their everyday reality for a fantasy vacation to a Jamaican swinger’s resort. Their resulting, slow-but-steady forays into sexual hedonism mark the novel’s most disturbing passages.
It’s a cliché of literary fiction that writing detailed sex scenes is dangerous and can put the writer at risk of receiving some Bad Sex Writing award or other, but Abdou ignores it. And her fearlessness grants the writing a kinetic power—as when Vero, on Shane’s urging, hooks up with a stranger in a public pool at the resort, before all eyes. But the brief resulting satisfaction—as much performance as pleasure—sends Vero spiraling: “when her body stops waving and spinning, she slides into the water, wanting to go right under, to sit at the bottom with her nose plugged and her eyes clenched tight. Looking at anyone now would be to own what has just happened. She would rather disappear.” Complete sexual satiety is the final frontier in Vero and Shane’s quest for a complete life: but it cannot be purchased without a cost.
Part of Abdou’s achievement in Between is in her avoidance of the terms “transaction,” “consumption” and “entitlement,” when these are driving themes behind nearly every page. To Vero and Shane, and even, to a certain degree, Ligaya, everything can be purchased if the purchaser has enough capital. Every pleasure is deserved. And everyone, whether or not they are in a position to seize it, is entitled to every pleasure. The consequences of seizing it, however, go deep: deeper than a resort pool, as deep as an ocean—maybe deeper.
Between’s descriptive passages are beautifully evoked, magnetic, even hypnotic. And Abdou pulls no punches: she does not avoid the difficult. She plunges right in. While its conclusion pushes too hard for resolution that is unlikely—or even impossible—Between remains complex to its final pages. Interpersonal tensions, for Abdou, are mountain ranges dividing people. Whether or not we can scale the heights depends on more than tenacity—more than empathy, even. It depends on our ability to truly see the other as more than a site of exchange.
Arsenal Pulp | 304 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1551525686