‘Sonja & Carl’ by Suzanne Hillier

Book Reviews

413G1Kp0QqL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Reviewed by Amy Attas

Suzanne Hillier recently returned to writing after retiring from the law firm she started in the 1970s, and the teaching career she had before that. Her first book, Divorce: A Guided Tour, was published in 2011, and Sonja & Carl is her first novel.

Sonja & Carl bears similarities to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic, Anne of Green Gables, though it’s set at the turn of this millennium. Sonja is a precocious teen who frets over her physical appearance—not red hair, but a boring black bun and a feeling that she’s “too tall and a little too heavy.” Like Anne, she does well in school, and at first does not think highly of her male classmate. Carl, like Gilbert, is popular at school (especially with girls), and his affection for Sonja is genuine even though she misunderstands it as a prank. But Carl is not as academically minded as Gilbert; his talents lie on the ice, where he’s the star of the Junior A hockey team. So, where Anne and Gilbert continue their courtship at teacher’s college, Sonja and Carl bond when she’s hired as his tutor.

Hillier’s experience and passion for teaching English comes across clearly in these tutoring scenes. Though details about literature’s great characters and themes are a deviation from the main push of the story, how Sonja teaches those themes offers an insider’s look at teaching strategies. Similar to Margaret Atwood’s protagonist in Hag-Seed, who must make The Tempest interesting to prison inmates, Sonja strategizes, “I would start with King Lear… there was considerable cruelty throughout, and I felt that he’d respond to that…Then on to The Great Gatsby, with an emphasis on Gatsby’s criminal past. That would interest Carl.” Sonja’s tactics change as she begins to understand Carl’s dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, adopting the Socratic method rather than a lecture style, and allowing her student to pace the room. It’s Hillier’s obvious authority that makes these scenes feel authentic.

Other subjects lack this credibility. To make this novel more than a high school love story, Hillier incorporates Carl’s struggles with post-concussion syndrome as he strives for the NHL. While the topic is important, and illness in a relationship interesting fodder for a love story (think Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, or even “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro), Hillier fails to illustrate the nuances of the debate. Carl’s eagerness to return to play—despite the health dangers—is accredited to the piles of money in his contract, the cheers of thousands of fans, and a macho culture intolerant of injury. There’s no mention of the more human desire to participate, to help teammates, and to compete because it feels like it matters more than anything. There’s no mention of the havoc concussions play on a person’s sense of “normal,” and how quickly we get used to dull headaches and light sensitivity, believing ourselves back at full strength when we aren’t. When the object of her affection is at risk, Sonja, understandably, places the blame on hockey. The sport is not blameless, but it would be nice if Hillier wrote in a character who advocated for the complexities and unknowns of brain science, and the inherent risks in everyday life—the concussions that come from car accidents and sneezes, and aren’t always accompanied by a pool of blood.

The first-person narration from Sonja limits the novel’s reach, and forces it into a naïve, oversimplified framework. Sonja is obsessed with appearance and commercial luxury—not just her own, but even a nurse at the hospital who gets a snide “it can’t be easy going through life with a jaw like that.” These old-fashioned ideals of body image and sexuality damage what could otherwise be a fun read for a young adult. Sonja asserts more than once that she must be Canada’s only virgin at the ripe old age of nineteen—a common adolescent fear, but Sonja expects the reader to agree. It would be nice if a character explained that modern girls need not worry about such fallacies. And, when she and Carl do eventually consummate their love, Sonja should know that she has rape culture to thank for her mistaken belief that a man, at any point during consensual sex, “wouldn’t or couldn’t stop.”

The first-person narration’s overflowing style seems, at first, to be a result of Sonja’s nerdy, socially awkward character, but since her teachers so often praise her essays and literary flare, it’s safe to assume the run-on sentences are not an intentional stylistic device. There is just too much that Hillier wants to convey about the rich world she’s imagined, and the details blur like fresh brushstrokes on wet watercolour. Sonja first describes Carl not with one telling detail, but a whole jumbled pile: “It was not that he was ugly. In fact, in a blond, large-framed way, some would think of him as good-looking and at least four inches taller than I was, which was a novelty and a plus.” Hillier would do well to take writer George Saunders’s advice on brevity and trusting your reader, reducing his example sentence: “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” to “Jane sat on the couch,” and then simply, “Jane,” as extraneous details are cut away.

There are glimpses of great writing too. The plot charges ahead like a Hollywood romantic comedy, with entertaining characters that readers can easily root for and against. The world is vivid, and sometimes Hillier brings the air and emotion together beautifully, holding it all in a single, tragic image. “It’s the third week of November and freezing. When we leave the airport and walk to the parking garage we can see our breath, and the air slaps our faces. It’s after six and already dark. Small hard spikes of stars pierce the sooty sky, and even the shrunken moon, surrounded by a lavender haze, seems cold.”

If Hillier stuck to her strengths—a boisterous storyline, vivid characters and that old adage to “write what you know”—her next literary effort could be a true force. In this novel, the lives of Sonja and Carl’s parents, immigrants from Ukraine and Germany, shine from the margins bursting with stories Hillier seems primed to tell. Here’s hoping that’s what she writes next.

Brindle & Glass | 320 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1927366561

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Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.