I think I first read Fall on Your Knees (Knopf Canada, 1996) in my third year of university, after I’d picked up the book at a used book sale. I must have recognized the title, since I scooped it without much of a thought, and when I returned home discovered that the copy had been signed. $3 well spent. And when I actually sat down to read the book, the experience mirrored the book’s purchase: I quickly discovered that I was reading something of far more value than I had initially anticipated. I was absorbed, enchanted, utterly devastated. In fact, this is the book that can be attributed with changing negative attitude in regard to all books with a maple leaf stamped on the spine.
This modern gothic saga begins with an inauspicious wedding between young James and Materia, his child bride; a misguided pairing that will result in several children and omipresent misfortune. This tale of familial strife is set against a vast historical and geographic backdrop: in its approximately forty year span, the novel contains both World Wars, the Depression and the Roaring twenties, the Spanish Influenza and Prohibition, depicting these larger historical events alongside the everyday struggles of small-town miners and immigrants to Canada living in Cape Breton. MacDonald also moves easily through the streets and jazz joints of Harlem, through the trenches of World War I, or along the rocky cliffs of Cape Breton — a testament to her range as a novelist, and to the phenomenal scope of the novel.
Of course the novel’s major historical events are on par with the tragedies that plague the Piper family: suicide, death, rape, attempted murder, physical violence, incest and disowning children. It is a novel where the hope chest is filled with reminders of lost and broken things, where the evocative title is fulfilled by all the major characters save one, as each person falls on their knees both in penance and in despair. It is a novel in which the great dramatic operas are a backdrop for the story of an average family in Cape Breton, and yet the family’s tale emerges as more tragic than anything played out on the stage of the opera house.
Ann-Marie MacDonald is an actress and playwright by training, and she makes the most of her dramatic instincts to keep a fairly hefty novel moving at a swift pace. She may not be the Canadian classic poet-turned-author, but her training endows the novel with its greatest strengths: carefully plotted scenes and effective foreshadowing that allow “family saga” and “page turner” to be used in the same sentence without irony, as well as fully realized and tragically flawed characters. The characters are truly remarkable — we see them in moments of tenderness and committing unspeakable acts; the most pious can be the most cold-blooded; the most loving commit the most appalling crimes. MacDonald enlists a cast of multitudes for her novel, with most characters given a chance to relate pivotal events from their own point of view. What results is a rich dialogue between perspectives, and as the reader attempts to sort out the facts, what becomes more interesting is how each character remembers them, for as Frances wisely acknowledges, “Memory is another word for story.”
Of course it’s not all darkness and gloom. MacDonald also writes an incredibly sensual and inspiring love story — a classic case of pride and prejudice, though without the benefit of a happy ending. And there is some hope in Lily, whose miraculousness lies in the fact that she emerges from her family’s tragedy still fundamentally good, and escapes her family’s misery in Cape Breton, starting anew in the place her mother discovered to be the land of milk and honey. And as the novel closes, Lily holds the family tree courtesy of Mercedes, a document which faces the past, which joins the family’s stories, and holds both love and loss on its sturdy branches.
I’ll admit, I was a little worried approaching this reread. I rarely reread books (I feel guilty when my TBR list is so long that in physical form it would easily outstrip the Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest freestanding structure). I hoped I would love Fall on Your Knees as much as on first reading, especially when I could still remember some of the novel’s stomach-dropping secrets that are one of its significant accomplishments. In the end, I did. It still may be my favourite Canadian novel. When I completed the book a second time, I felt just as dazed, just as utterly overcome. And I realize that this is the book perhaps least in need of a Canada Reads endorsement of all the competitors (potentially of all those in the Canadian canon). And yet maybe there are people who haven’t read it, for like 20-year-old me, they don’t read CanLit. Or maybe the Canada Reads nomination will inspire others to pick it up once more, to revisit an incredibly complex and unsettling novel that mines its way into you, painfully chipping away at your insides, leaving echoing caverns, but also unearthing diamonds.
And now, as promised, my 1 minute pitch as a Canada Reads panelist for Fall on Your Knees:
*Note: This took fewer takes this time and I seem less like I’m hosting Masterpiece Theater (or at least more like I’m hosting Monsterpiece Theater instead), but this video pitch stuff is still a work in progress. Also: I open my mouth wider in real life than it appears on these videos (or so I’m assured).