In fiction, time’s passage tends to heighten the drama of human entanglements, making the scaffolding of literature a natural fit. Ann Charney’s new novel doesn’t succumb to such easy structures. An immigrant story set in the Montreal of the 1950s and early ’60s, it follows the messy, intimate, and familiar drive of a young girl to find her way through the maze of conflicting codes and personal woes besetting the adults who try to control her destiny. The voice of the narrator, Ellen, is strong and true, giving this delicious novel the ingenuous power of a memoir.
While recent history dominates at home, the future beckons by way of her best friend’s mother, Magda, a worldly type bent on teaching the girls to be femmes fatales; and New York cousins determined to spring Ellen from a tight, female-dominated household. She oscillates between the two worlds, with bursts of rebellion followed by guilt over the plight of her widowed mother. The best scenes follow her quest for sexual experience, which she pursues with clear-eyed purposefulness. Having just shed her virginity, she observes, “Magda was right about one thing. Sex was power, as long as you kept your head. The ability to do so, to be part of something and be aware of it at the same time was exciting, even more exciting in some ways than the sensation of losing myself in the spell of those first melting kisses.”
Ellen manages to escape plans made for her by other people; otherwise, it isn’t clear what the headstrong young narrator gains from the myriad events that happen around her. An accomplished novelist, essayist, and journalist, Charney (a Polish-born Montrealer) is best known for her 1973 novel, Dobryd, in which she drew on personal experience to tell the story of a five-year-old Jewish girl’s escape after being liberated by the Russian army in 1945. The surface details of her latest work dip into the same pool, suggesting that its tentative ending, on the cusp of the ’60s, may well signal a sequel.