You don’t get very far into Méira Cook’s new novel, Once More With Feeling, before you realize that she’s an amazingly talented writer.
This House of Anansi Press novel features a cast of eclectic characters, including four members of the Jewish Binder family, in a Canadian Prairie city that isn’t named but can only be Winnipeg.
To me, the experience of reading this novel was like having a ticket for a train ride to an unknown destination, and not being able to figure out where you’re going, as the direction of travel keeps twisting and the scenery keeps changing in unexpected ways.
Once More With Feeling begins with Max Binder, who has just arranged what he imagines is the perfect 40th birthday gift for his brassy, outspoken wife, Maggie: a teenaged foster child from Zambia, who arrives in the dead of winter. But even before this surprise gift can be delivered comes another surprise that utterly transforms the newly established trajectory of the book. (It’s such a major event that the reviewer’s code prevents me from revealing any more.)
The story then opens up to embrace an ensemble of characters that includes Maggie and the Binders’ two sons, Sams (for Samson) and Lazar (Lazarus). We also meet Shapiro, the wily editor of a small newspaper, the eccentric Rabbi Zalman, Miss Leonard, who volunteers at a downtown homeless mission, and many others.
Just as their city is bisected by railway lines and rivers, back alleys and boulevards, the characters lead interconnected lives and share intersecting moments of comedy and drama. These take place over the course of one year and are relayed to the reader in non-chronological order, as well as in a variety of voices and viewpoints.
Cook’s prose is steeped in the stuff of everyday life, not all of which (you would think) has the potential to become the stuff of literary prose. For example:
“ ‘Lord, Maggie, you are a marvel,’ Max would say, sighing and shaking his head over her Shake and Bake Chicken Surprise. As if to say, ‘I wish I knew how you manage to achieve such an even crumble.’ As if to say, ‘Moist and tender on the inside but golden crisp on the outside.’ As if to say, ‘There is more than one surprise in Chicken Surprise, and not the least of it is you.’ ”
Or how about this lovely passage as the newspaper editor discovers his wife giving another man a shave:
“As Shapiro watched, silent, on the threshold, Allie tilted the copyeditor’s face toward the light, the extra 10 per cent of daylight savings time tacked onto these late afternoons like a sales tax. Brodsky’s chin and cheeks were covered in foam whipped to the friable stiffness of meringue topping on a slightly wobbly pie.”
Cook reminds me of Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, The Corrections) in her ability to dazzle readers with a literary legerdemain that peers acutely into the minutiae of our daily modern world. No question that she’s brilliant and a natural-born writer.
My only quibble is that some readers, myself included, I’m afraid, are not nearly so brilliant or fast off the mark. Cook’s rapid-fire presentation of puns, similes, metaphors, punchlines and the like, dare I say, tires out the brain.
Not only is this cake too rich, but (at more than 400 pages) there’s too much of it. No matter how delightful, it becomes a chore to finish it. Cook’s publisher could have done a better job of paring down this promising work to its bare essentials.
Cook, who moved from South Africa to Winnipeg more than 25 years ago, has two previous published novels, both set in South Africa. Her 2015 book, Nightwatching, won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. Despite my quibbles, I’d be surprised if Once More With Feeling – Cook’s first novel set in Canada – doesn’t win a prestigious prize as well.