The Halifax Explosion was ninety-three years ago today, which makes me think again about Carol Bruneau’s novel Glass Voices. You can find my review of the book in a PDF on the Diocesan Times website, but because it’s a few clicks away (February 2008, page 8), I’ll reproduce it here:
“hope even when every aspect of life seems to disappoint”
Carol Bruneau, Glass Voices (Cormorant, 2007)
On the morning of December 6, 1917, twenty-year-old Lucy Caines is nine months pregnant, stoking the stove in the kitchen of her flat on Campbell Road (later Barrington Street) in Halifax’s North End, poaching eggs for breakfast. Her sixteen-month-old daughter, Helena, is teething. Her husband, Harry, is getting ready for a dentist’s appointment, yelling at her to ask where his cufflinks are. It is an ordinary morning, but within minutes, Lucy’s life changes completely, when the Imo and the Mont Blanc collide in the Narrows and the resulting explosion brings devastation to Lucy’s neighbourhood and her family. She gives birth to her son, Jewel, in a tent at the base of Citadel Hill set up by relief workers, and when the two of them are moved to a church basement shelter, she finds Harry, but not Helena. Lucy’s parents and sister are dead. Harry has a wound in his chest and he has lost his left eye; Lucy’s knees are “big as softballs oozing purple.”
Carol Bruneau’s intense and haunting new novel, Glass Voices, is about the long-term effects of the Halifax Explosion on Lucy’s life. Losing Helena nearly drives her to despair, and Harry, who can’t talk about their loss, devotes himself to drinking and playing the accordion with his buddies and a woman named Lil, whom Lucy thinks of as “a proper sleveen.” At first Lucy and Harry live in “the Grounds,” near the Northwest Arm; too nervous to return to the newly built houses in the North End, they live in a small cabin, surrounded by other survivors. Eventually, Harry builds a larger, more comfortable house, but he doesn’t reform his drinking, swearing, and gambling, these habits making life even harder for his long-suffering wife.
Bruneau describes the day of the Explosion vividly, Lucy’s fragments of remembered pain coming to the surface years later, in 1969, after Harry has had a stroke. The air around her “had tasted of roasted iron”; “[k]nife-sharp, the rising wind had shoved her downhill to what remained of the street.” Even worse for Lucy than the physical pain of December 1917 is the sheer ordinariness of having to live on, year after year, without Helena. The truth is that “everywhere she went, she saw Helena; in every little face—something.” Caring for Harry after the stroke, she thinks, “If there’s one thing she’s learned, it’s not to think beyond the chore in front of her.”
One of the triumphs of Glass Voices is this juxtaposition of the horror of the moment of disaster with the lasting emotional pain of extreme loss. Even more impressive is the centrality of hope and prayer. Despite Lucy’s injured knees, she is the only member of her family to get on her knees and pray. She becomes a Catholic and attends St. Columba’s Church; in her head she hears echoes of religious language as well as the voices of her family. Sometimes, she is just on her knees looking for the right pot to make ten batches of dill pickles, but wherever she is, lines of prayer run through her head: she hears Jewel as a child praying, “Now I lay-mee down ta sleep,” Jewel’s wife Rebecca saying, “But everyone needs a reason to get up,” the voice of an imagined priest telling her, “Seek and ye shall find.” Somehow, Lucy finds ways to hope that life will get better, even though she often thinks she is “wishing and praying for things that couldn’t or wouldn’t be.” Even lying on the hillside, flattened by the blast, she feels her unborn baby kicking to jolt her back to life. Late in the novel, she clings to the idea that “no matter what, a baby gave a person hope” (245).
It would be possible to write a novel about the Halifax Explosion that focuses on the disaster and despair of the moment, or one that offers a sentimental version of recovery. Bruneau has accomplished the much more difficult task of showing just how hard life is in the years after the Explosion, while also demonstrating how it may be possible to find hope even when every aspect of life seems to disappoint. The descriptions of Lucy’s consciousness are convincing; the family voices, phrases from popular culture, religious language, and fragments of songs help to show how many of a person’s thoughts are her own, and how many are borrowed words that may or may not suit the situation. Lucy has to decide which voices to listen to, and how to pray. Over and over, she hears the nursery rhyme “Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children alone….” The repeated echoes of her laments and her prayers combine to tell a powerful story of suffering and redemption.