Jenny Ferguson’s literary debut, Border Markers, is a novel in stories. But it is at once something bigger and briefer than that. Bigger because it is more than a single plot or point of view, and briefer because it’s actually closer to novella length. The novel in stories form has been extremely well-received in recent years, with books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad winning the Pulitzer. And like Katherena Vermette’s The Break, another Canadian novel told through shifting narratives, Border Markers is a story pieced together by many narrators affected by the ripples of tragedy.
This form seems to be a reminder of two things. One, a novel is a web of connected stories about lives and events, none of them existing in isolation. And two, a story is much more than a simple moment in time. Characters in short stories are not just their current situation. Their past, their friends, their family, their childhood, and the world they live in are all part of the story, even if they are not immediately present on the page.
How does Border Markers fit into this? Is it just a popular trend or does this technique serve the story in a greater way? In the first few stories, Border Markers reads like any novel narrated by multiple characters. The novel opens with a piece about one of the many characters, Mike Lansing, stopping for gas. What is meant to be a routine trip ends with Mike crashing into a pump. The second story, “Bleaching the Stains Away,” follows directly after the first. Mike’s wife Barb throws a birthday party for him, and the accident in the first story causes him to miss it. The third story is also directly connected to the first two, as we follow policeman Leroy when he reports to Mike’s accident.
At this point, the novel has established an obvious flow between stories, but the next one is a bit jarring. The fourth story takes place in a prison, and at this point there is no obvious connection between this story and the previous stories, as all the characters in it are introduced for the first time here. We meet Chuck, and learn he has a dark past which landed him in prison, and that he has a passion for the books that arrive on the prison book cart. It is in this chapter that the reader discovers this is not a conventional novel in which each section directly follows the last.
The stories continue, jumping from character to character, but despite the sometimes jarring shifts, Ferguson often masterfully weaves the flash pieces together in a way that flows and makes you want to keep reading.
A majority of the stories in Border Markers are about two pages in length. And a wealth of detail is packed into that short space. Ferguson is a master of short form, and though the individual pieces stand alone, they read like a novel, her clear, vivid voice and descriptions making you want to continue reading from one story to the next. For example, the story “School Photos” opens with this paragraph, in which the smooth, effortless language draws the reader in:
Christopher sat at the kitchen table with his homework spread out in front of him as he argued with his mother. On the far edge of the table, a piece of neon paper reminded students to tell their parents about the upcoming picture day. “I should have thrown it in the trash,” Christopher said, scraping the beveled edge of the table with his pencil to chip off the varnish. “Then we wouldn’t be in a fight.”
And since the interconnections between all of the pieces, with interlocking lives and events, are eventually revealed, the book reads as easily as any novel despite the often unclear sequence of events.
One of the exceptions to the usual form of these stories is “Anniversaries,” about a nurse named Erin who we later find out is deeply entwined with the central tragedy of the novel, the death of a boy named Bill. The two-page story is itself divided into three sections, and it works, each section pushing toward a common goal to create a powerful flash piece. Another pivotal story, “Puppy Down,” starts to fill in the blanks of the incident that the whole novel revolves around, and, like “Anniversaries,” which it is directly related to, it is divided into three sections. At almost a page for each section, the story is nearly three full pages – by far the longest in the whole book.
While the Lansing family is the central focus of the novel, there are many other characters in the thirty-three stories of Border Markers. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a fuller understanding of the characters and how they are all connected. We learn who is related, and how, creating a full view of Bill’s death and its impact on the community. This technique effectively allows the reader to experience the story from both the zoomed in view of each character, and also the wider perspective of the phenomenon sweeping the community. This makes Border Markers the kind of book you instantly want to re-read with an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of the characters.
So what is the connection? The back cover copy claims that it is a book about a tragic death and the ramifications it causes throughout a community, but it is really about smaller struggles, isolated desires. Over the course of the novel, we learn more about Chuck, who is in prison for murder, and we follow his sister Poppy on her international travels accompanied by the ghost of her ex-boyfriend.
Although there is a larger narrative at play, this book makes you want to keep reading not to discover a broader plot, but for each slice of life itself, the little motivations and daily struggles, the connection between characters. This is a novella in flash stories after all, and the form is essential in giving it the impact it achieves. While the events and ramifications of Bill’s death are a central connection between the stories, we care about isolated events—we care about Poppy and her travels, we care about her parents’ marriage, and we want to know more about other characters, like Christopher.
The Lansing family lives on many borders. Poppy finds herself on the border of Mexico, trapped without her passport, unsure if she wants to find her way home. The book itself is set in Lloydminster, on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta. The characters are constantly navigating that border as part of their daily life, crossing it to go to work, to visit friends and family, to celebrate and to mourn.
NeWest | 150 pages | $15.95 | paper| ISBN# 978-1926455693