‘Ledger of the Open Hand’ by Leslie Vryenhoek

Book Reviews

Ledger of the Open HandReviewed by Carlyn Schellenberg

First-year university student Meriel-Claire is a small-town, studious homebody. While that may not sound like an enticing narrator, don’t judge a book by its cover. Ledger of the Open Hand is an accessible read – I couldn’t put the book down, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy reading it. The novel begins when MC enters her first year of university, leaving her small prairie town behind. Much like Gulf, Newfoundland writer and former Manitoban Leslie Vryenhoek’s poetry collection, Ledger of the Open Hand explores the landscapes of both city and small town.

The novel follows MC throughout university, as she and her sophisticated dorm mate, Daneen, enter adulthood together, and as Daneen inserts herself more and more into MC’s life. Broken up into three long parts, Ledger of the Open Hand spans around 20 years, from the ’80s to the mid-2000s, leading up to MC’s career as a debt counsellor, and ending in her late thirties.

In the novel, Vryenhoek examines the concept of friendship and boundaries. After noticing a stocking with Daneen’s name glue glittered on it hanging from the mantle at MC’s parents’ house on Christmas Day, MC notes, “for the first time I realized that families were not fixed, that they could change their shape and size.” MC begins to live in Daneen’s shadow, and observes as Daneen becomes close with MC’s mother.

Vryenhoek’s language is modest, yet constantly beautiful. This description of the setting at the beginning of the novel sets precedent: “In my side-view mirror, I caught a last glimpse of Calder through the trees. The town looked like a kid’s pop-up book laid open on the prairie. Then the road curved and Calder closed up behind me.”

Meriel-Claire is a protagonist we can learn from. How many expenses does she cut by saving wrapping paper, making her own lunches, walking to work, and sticking to a budget, for example? Her fiscally conservative and extremely frugal lifestyle is impressive, shocking, and frustrating at times, leading the reader to the conclusion that you need to blow your money once in a while. For instance, later in the novel, when MC, who does basically everything herself, finds out that her mother uses a housekeeper, her mother offers her this explanation: “I realized Daneen was right—people should spend their time doing the important things and leave the cleaning to someone else.” Nonetheless, MC’s rigid need and ability, for the majority of the novel, to do everything herself is admirable – she is a wholly independent heroine.

The central theme of Ledger of the Open Hand is easy to empathize with. While dealing with monetary debt, the novel examines social balances as well. For example, if someone drives you home often, how will you repay them? Perhaps buy them dinner once in a while. How many favours have you each done for each other? Does it more or less add up, and who is keeping score? Every relationship has a social balance sheet, and potential for social debt. MC and Daneen’s relationship is a prime example of social and monetary debt intertwining. Daneen offers to pay for certain items that MC can’t afford, and MC must find other, non-monetary ways, to repay her.

The reader is continually reminded that this is a retrospective account, and Vryenhoek employs a large dose of foreshadowing, similar to a nineteenth century classic such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. This foreshadowing is part of the reason that Ledger of the Open Hand succeeds in its page-turning persuasiveness. This passage exhibits subtler foreshadowing: “That first summer with the books, I had so much faith in evenhanded rationale. I still believed everything could be neatly reconciled in the end.”

At the beginning of the novel, when Daneen and MC bond through MC eavesdropping on Daneen’s phone calls with her absent parents, so that MC can dissect and analyze the conversation for Daneen, this bit of foreshadowing is more direct: “I didn’t know it at the time—maybe she did—but we were both rehearsing for our future careers.” This technique is repeated throughout, and compels the reader to continue on to see what will happen in each particular storyline. Due to the retrospective narration, some of the novel’s foreshadowing evokes feelings of sadness, such as in this early passage: “I lowered my visor against the sun, startled to find my own image staring back. Years later, the face caught in that little mirror clipped to the visor would come back to me—a face so unguarded, so utterly uncreased by compromise or caginess. If I’d recognized then just how defenseless I appeared, maybe I’d have found a way to protect myself. But all I saw that evening was my wretched blandness.”

Part emotional young adult drama, part touching family saga, Ledger of the Open Hand is sad, juicy, humble, and, above all, highly entertaining.

Breakwater | 324 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #  978-1550816044

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Carlyn Schellenberg

Carlyn Schellenberg is a writer and associate editor for the Winnipeg Review.