‘If Clara’ by Martha Baillie

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Domenica Martinello

The first time we meet Clara, she begins with an if: “If you want to have any kind of relationship with me, never mention the following subjects: politics, movies, or eyes.” When we meet her well-intentioned sister Julia, the first of four alternating narrators in Martha Baillie’s If Clara, she has already trespassed, ruminating on Clara’s “astute eye” drawn to “the overlooked.” In a novel that oscillates between making visible and then obfuscating the boundaries between life, art, and illness, Baillie’s shifting points of view are, for the most part, leveraged to a powerful effect.

The subtle differences and varying levels of participation associated with looking, seeing, observing, watching, spectating and spying are thematic strands plaited through the novel. Readers begin in medias res, continuing on without chapters or section breaks. Instead, we rotate through perspectives, each shift marked by the name of one of the novel’s four narrators. For a condensed novel of 160 pages, each moment feels purposeful. This is evidenced by our very first introduction to Julia and Clara, whose love, admiration, resentment and distrust of one another bolsters their complex and compelling dynamic.

A dichotomy is established immediately between the sisters: Clara is volatile and Julia is solid. Clara’s an artist who has turned the walls of her fractured life into an exhibit, while Julia is a professional curator at ease in the context of a museum. Clara is sick. Julia is well enough to often adopt the self-appointed position of caretaker/peacekeeper for both her mother and sister. Yet, as the frightening extent of Clara’s mental illness gradually becomes clear, so does the fraught nature of her coping mechanisms.

Clara downplays her condition while also attempting to convince her sister and mother of how unwell she really is so that they will respect her boundaries. As readers become more familiar with the hidden aspects of her illness, however, it seems likely that these boundaries might actually be detrimental to Clara’s well-being. They’re more of a distancing strategy that dissuades intervention so that Clara may continue to make art free from overmedication and institutionalization. Boundaries that are crossed—due to carelessness, misunderstanding, or something Clara perceives as more sinister—often trigger long bouts of estrangement from her family (who she, regardless, relies on for financial support). Using the term “merciless” to describe the government, for example, might cause Clara to disappear from Julia’s life for months.

It’s true that Clara’s family overestimate her thresholds, despite repeated attempts at setting clear parameters. But can’t their trespasses be partially attributed to Clara’s intentional withholdings? Sure, but there’s still the sense that Julia feels compelled to test and challenge Clara, whether consciously or not. Describing her sister’s appearance, Julia notes that the “milky whiteness of [Clara’s] skin has often made me want to cause a disturbance, to flail my arms and shout, or else hide from its unbearable purity and calm.” This seems like an apt metaphor for the push and pull of their relationship.

I find the two women so engrossing that I haven’t even touched on one of the novel’s main plot points—a mysterious manuscript about a Syrian refugee that lands on the porch of Daisy, an established author in her 50s. The manuscript is attributed to a Syrian pseudonym, F. H. Homsi, but an accompanying note reveals that Clara is presumably the author of the text. Daisy is mesmerized and astonished by the “gouging” prose, which is laden with allegory and references to Syrian folktales (one of which, strikingly, involves a needle in the eye).

As a character, Daisy creates an interesting parallel to both sisters. On the one hand, she’s presented as stable and dependable. Just as Julia knows how to navigate the institutionally sanctioned art world, Daisy is similarly plugged in to professional publishing and literary spheres. But Daisy, who is in a hip-to-ankle cast due to a terrible biking accident, also acts as a physical manifestation of Clara’s invisible illness. Daisy, a creative person who Clara trusts “because of [her] writing,” often faces strikingly similar limitations. “The leg has made me less willing to open my door to a stranger,” Daisy says. “I’ve become a cautious, one-legged reluctant, who hesitates to invite the world in.”

The novel itself does invite the world in, especially when it gets meta. When Clara and Daisy meet at a café to discuss the manuscript (titled Don’t Get Me Wrong), Clara grows accusatory when Daisy questions why she wants the novel published under a Syrian pseudonym. “The mentally ill, we’re all refugees…If I’d written about me, you wouldn’t have cared. But a Syrian refugee? That’ll sell, you thought.” It provokes readers to question Baillie’s own intentionality regarding the specificity of this storyline. The beauty, though, is that readers feel the truth in Daisy’s words when she asserts that if the main character hadn’t been a Syrian refugee she “would have believed in her suffering, and cared.” We feel it so viscerally because we ourselves care deeply about Clara. All other plot points pale in comparison to our investment in Clara’s version of events, in the trueness of her suffering, in her well-being, and in her gift as an artist, refugee or not.

In regards to weak spots, as Trevor Corkum points out in The Toronto Star, the novel’s fourth narrator Maurice feels underdeveloped. It can be argued that the novel gains a subplot and some additional insight from Maurice’s voyeuristic character, but I don’t think the novel would lose much in his absence. If anything, Maurice ties all the characters together in an unnecessarily novelistic way (Maurice is Julia’s best friend and coincidentally Daisy’s neighbour, and his presence seems to facilitate the tying in of all four narrators). In a novel where things undoubtedly “happen” and intriguing events unfold, however, it’s still clear that the intricacies of Baillie’s characters are her true shining achievement.

Coach House | 160 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN: 9781552453568

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Domenica Martinello

Domenica Martinello is a writer from Montréal, Québec, and is the author of the chapbook Interzones (words(on)pages, 2015). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, CV2, The Puritan, Matrix, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.