Written by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Published by Vintage Canada
If taking a Canadian literature course this year has taught me two things, here they are:
1.) The "Canadian experience" cannot be examined holistically until one rejects the notion of a homogenous culture and recognizes that it is comprised of a wide variety of diaspora and traditions.
2.) Canadian literature is fucked up.
I don't mean to bash my Home and Native Land with the second point, or suggest that those who provide Canada's literary output are themselves dysfunctional; no country ever fully works out its issues. But we Canadians seem to have a knack for piecing together narratives rich, fascinating and macabre. Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees is no exception to the rule.
Fall on Your Knees is a family saga set against the historical backdrop of late 19th century/early 20th century Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, following the Piper family across three generations. The Pipers are a means for MacDonald to explore Canada's lack of cultural homogeneity. James Piper is a standard Maritime mix of English, Scots and Irish, though feeling no real connection with any part of his heritage. His wife Materia, née Mahmoud, is the daughter of a successful Catholic Lebanese family, disowned fairly early on in the novel for eloping with James. To say their marriage becomes "turbulent" is the epitome of understatement.
The bulk of the story centres on the Piper sisters, James and Materia's four daughters (or three, depending on, in pure Jedi fashion, a certain point of view). MacDonald initially paints the girls in broad strokes: Kathleen the Diva, Mercedes the Saint, Frances the Devil and Lily the Innocent. However, each turned page adds a new layer of complexity--Mercedes, simultaneously filled with God's Love and human guilt, Lily, blissfully unaware of her true place in the family and Kathleen, a fiery but ultimately tragic figure. I can't even attempt to distill Frances to her base elements; one has to read the entire middle section of the novel just to get a glimpse at what forces drive her.
It would be easy to call Fall on Your Knees a tragedy--incredibly easy. The novel has its fair share of untimely, even gruesome deaths, and MacDonald is not at all apprehensive in her depiction of abuse and incest, but the idea of tragedy necessitates a certain kind of ending this novel--thankfully--lacks. I won't even try to call it a happy ending but it's incredibly fulfilling no matter how you look at it.
Though the novel occasionally places itself in blooming New York City (where the narrative ultimately concludes), it lives and breathes its Cape Breton setting. While I have never visisted the Île Royale I'm intimately familiar with its neighbour, Prince Edward Island, and with MacDonald's verbal landscapes it wasn't at all difficult to picture its rocky, windswept coast (maybe not as visually pleasing as PEI's red sands, but I digress). It's hard to describe a Maritime sea breeze to anyone who hasn't experienced it firsthand, but as I read one of Frances' many trips down the Old Shore road I could hear the crashing of waves, feel the wind's light chill, smell the seaweed below and taste the salty air. These moments tend to make up for MacDonald's occasionally overwrought prose and tendency to tell rather than show.
Extra kudos should be given for "Hejira," the second-to-last section of the novel and a transcription of Kathleen's diary in 1918 NYC. Its twists are enriching--and I'm not usually one for twists--and also manages to flesh out a character absent for a good third of the book.
I read one of MacDonald's plays last year in ENGL 1000--her first, in fact: Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). It's a humorous, self-conscious play that I can imagine anyone enjoying but it's so far removed from her work on Fall on Your Knees that it's mind-boggling. Good range, girl.
A brief note: Fall on Your Knees is, I suppose, a "mom book"--an admittedly perjorative term for those novels that make the rounds through the 40 and over female population every couple of months, usually endorsed by Oprah. In fact, I noticed the "Oprah's Book Club" label on Fall's back cover about a day or so into reading it. I can picture a couple of my buddies from home groaning at the thought of me reading this but I got over that absurd little prejudice in Grade 11 when I analyzed Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper in writer's craft. I also feel no shame in mentioning my love for The Time Traveler's Wife or that I consumed The Lovely Bones in less than a day. A good book is a good book, even if Oprah gushes over it.
I'm rambling here, but what I mean to say is that you should give this book a chance even if you're of a more "macho" disposition. It can be emotionally difficult and even a little disturbing at times but it's well worth its 566 pages.