Reviewed by Kristy Hourd
After reading Our Lady of Steerage, Steven Mayoff’s first novel, it is not surprising to see that much of his published work is poetry. Though he has written and published short stories and plays, his first novel seems to drift more closely to the measured rhythms and striking imagery of a poem rather than the heavy dialogue of theatre.
The rhythms in the novel are not quite so much in meter or rhyme as they are in the sometimes gentle, often tempestuous back-and-forth rocking of the book’s timeline, tipping measurably between the years as readers follow the deeply intertwined lives of three Polish women immigrating to Canada. The story centers around a week-long ocean journey from Cherbourg, France to Montreal, focusing on a young woman named Mariasse and how her life is irrevocably changed by the people she meets on the SS Montmartre – namely the young Jewish couple Shulim and Betye, whose infant daughter Dvorah Mariasse cares for, and Aaron and Gérard, a studious boy and a sailor who become unlikely friends through Mariasse. The book took me the better part of a week to read, the tragic plot and non-linear narrative causing a kind of emotional hardship throughout that brought on a need to paddle slowly through its pages. At no point was it smooth sailing for the three women characters either: Betye, recently bereaved of her young son; Mariasse, chasing a half-formed longing for her cousin based on a booty-shake in the parlour; and Dvorah, the neglected infant that ties Betye and Mariasse together for her entire life.
As Mayoff steers us between time periods of up to 50 years, it quickly becomes clear that he is interested in showing us the effect before the cause. We see Dvorah being taught that she is a consolation for Mariasse, Mariasse’s childless life, and her unwillingness to discuss certain aspects of her past before we are later taken into the distressing details of her miscarriage. We are shown Dvorah waking without memory of her second mother long before we are shown her lifelong struggle with manic depression that leads to electroshock therapy. We observe the long-term effects of pain and tragedy on the women before we see their hardships, creating space for moments of gut-wrenching comprehension and building empathy with a solid foundation of suffering.
While I was taken by this strategy, it also led to my main struggle with reading the novel. As discontent was built and expanded to link all the time periods of the women’s lives together, it also drowned out and distorted any of the positive feelings evoked in the characters and subsequently in myself as a reader, leaving me drained. For example, when the illegitimately pregnant Mariasse accepts her Jewish friend Aaron’s proposal of marriage (despite having witnessed him with another man), her potential feelings of relief, safety, happiness, or perhaps even love, are all expressed in her simply turning towards the wall in her bed “with contentment,” leaving me unbelieving and dissatisfied. Additionally, this lack of positive emotion or outcome for any of the three women leaves them directionless, tossed about by the waves of fate set in motion by the sea voyage to Canada. This novel is one without hope as the characters, often so full of conviction, are lost.
The week-long journey on the boat to Canada is presented as the point to which the rest of the characters’ lives, both past and present, are anchored. The stories Our Lady of Steerage shares are always remembered and not experienced, allowing the past to be shaped to fit into the sea voyage’s narrative. And, as the book’s opening quote from Milan Kundera states, “The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a kind of forgetting.” With each new retelling of the voyage, old identities are forgotten, and new ones formed. Betye, the most consistent and also most determinedly self-punishing woman of the three, mostly refuses to take part in the storytelling, staunchly remaining the same grief-stricken woman she was on the ship. Mariasse, always looking to be a muse and succeeding only in inspiring Dvorah in ways she never wanted to, tells and retells her stories of her time as Our Lady of Steerage, looking to nurture the skills of a different companion in each phase of her life. Dvorah tells stories she isn’t even sure she can really remember, looking to tie herself more inextricably to Mariasse, almost to become her: a need to reopen the shop Mariasse ran when Dvorah was a child, her teen desire for Mariasse’s husband, a suicide attempt reminiscent of Mariasse’s emptied bottle of iodine.
While the novel at first seems to be geared towards those with a Jewish background, or those with close ties to the upheaval of immigration – and it is – the book quickly expands itself to relate to the larger human experience without sacrificing detailed descriptions of the cultures involved. Raw ties of empathy are forged between readers and the characters with blunt portrayals of pain and tragedy making up for the lack of any retribution or believable positive emotion, regardless of whether the patron saint of travelling appeals to the readers as he does to Mariasse, or if Jewish conversion is something with which readers can identify. A bit of an emotionally difficult read, it is satisfying nonetheless. Our Lady of Steerage is a bare, harshly lit, enlightening summary of Canadian experience.
Bunim & Bannigan | 280 pages | $26.95 | cloth | ISBN# 978-1933480374