Conversations for Two, is a multi-layered exploration of suicide and grief, and yet despite the grim subject matter, this book is a surprisingly easy read.
The narrator of this debut novel by Jacqueline Markowitz is a middle-aged mother named Jackie, who is trying to make sense of her older brother John’s suicide. She revisits the trauma she experienced as a teenager struggling with the shock of John’s death and mines his writings to gain insight into who he was and why he ended his life.
“Fiction with elements of true life experiences”
By integrating his poetry and writings into the narrative, Markowitz has set up a remarkable dialogue between the siblings, hence the book’s title. By probing her late brother’s writings, the narrator brings him to life.
In a recent interview, Markowitz called the book a work of “fiction with elements of true life experiences.”
She did indeed have an older brother named John, who had been an accomplished poet and a prolific writer. He did, in fact, commit suicide at age 24 and she had to grapple with his death when she was 17.
Markowitz also disclosed another important fact: her brother’s actual writings were lost to the family, but 25 years after his death she was able to retrieve his works through a chance encounter, which she details in the book.
This serendipitous event inspired Markowitz to write Conversations for Two, she said. “I feel that this book wanted to be written. It was bashert.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is the unique interplay between the fictional narrative and John’s actual writings. “His poetry and my prose intermingle,” Markowitz said.
The font changes as the writing shifts back and forth between the siblings. “I talk to him a lot in the book. Through his writing I got a sense of knowing him in a more intimate way.”
Much of the narrative takes place in and around Toronto of the early 1970s. Jackie’s adolescent memories of John surface, but they are filtered through the lens of her adult self.
She recalls happy times with John – a Beatles concert, rock festivals, visits to the commune where he lived and hanging out with his hippie friends.
Markowitz aptly captures the mood of those times – the legendary music, the psychedelic colours, the flowing skirts, peasant shirts, bandanas, drugs, and iconic Toronto landmarks like Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue, the experimental Rochdale College and Yorkville, then a hippie hangout
Her description of Yorkville exemplifies her rich prose writing. “Music exhaled through doors ajar and trinkets and talismans bejewelled the boutiques. They gathered, flower children stirring in an intoxicating brew of peace and love.”
John’s life – much of which Markowitz imagined from his writings – was defined by the counter-cultural movement and his poetry reflects the ethos of that era: “suns & smiles. a collection of poems written with the purpose of writing a poem perhaps to further the never ending cause of peace and love.”
In contrast to this world, Markowitz has also rooted the story in the mundane details of the narrator’s upbringing. Hers was an ordinary middle-class home, that typified many Jewish households in Toronto.
Markowitz makes reference to the sponge cake Jackie’s mother made from a recipe from Second Helpings Please!, the kosher cookbook so ubiquitous in Jewish homes across Canada.
She describes her mother’s china cabinet with its quintessential display of prized English bone china cups and saucers that were so common in mid-20th century homes before the onslaught of made-in China tchatchkes from the dollar stores of the 21st century.
Conversations for Two is an impressive undertaking. It succeeds in immersing the reader into the dialogue between the protagonist and her late brother, offering insight into the pain and grief triggered by a sudden and untimely death.
The book can be purchased online through The Jam Press and in Toronto at Type (427 Spadina Rd. or 883 Queen St. W.)