The Globe and Mail: The Continuation of Love by Other Means

June 9, 2011

August 16, 2003

Review by Sarah Sheard

Carmen is a feisty little girl of 5 when her father, a restless ladies’ man, walks out on his wife and child to pursue his mining-engineering business in South Africa. Carmen is devastated, despite the fact that Alfred’s been a virtual stranger since her birth. She won’t see him again until she’s 9, when he invites her to visit him and her stepmother in his new home.

Thus begin these accounts of her annual short visits, snapshots of a father-daughter power struggle, narrated by each of the in alternating chapters. Alfred’s work takes him far afield, and Carmen visits him in Paris, Portugal, Brazil and finally Argentina. Eerily alike, they are equally intolerant of each other’s rebellious natures and kick against traditional roles—for themselves, of course—although they each crave conformity from the other.

Carmen wants Alfred to be a traddy daddy. Alfred assures her that girls are wired up to be mothers, full stop. Carmen is a fastidious little bookworm, tucking escargots back into their shells rather than—eughhh!—eating them. She buries herself in a storybook despite Alfred’s entreaties to hang out with him instead, clinically observing her father’s sexual shenanigans with one young woman after another. Her questioning mind bounces from nature to nurture and back again in an effort to understand the meaning (and value to the universe) of the struggle between male and female.

Mixed messages abound. Small wonder that Carmen grows into a righteously angry, left-leaning teenager—a mess of typical teenaged contradictions, loving her dad’s free-and-easy lifestyle, the amazing shopping, the erotic frisson of Buenos Aires’ nightlife, and detesting the privilege that protects and is protected by the brutal regime responsible for the desaparecidos. Her own complacency flung aside, together with the day’s shopping, she confronts Alfred about his politics and, predictably, each of them digs down deep and defensive. Power struggles they’ve had in earlier days over food, a piercing and his…um, little ways…are a bun fight compared to this. Oh, why can’t a woman be more like a man? Alfred pines, while Carmen packs up her shopping and flies home.

Repeating his family’s pattern, Alfred disowns his daughter—she’s yet one more woman in his life who refuses to be sufficiently compliant. Only it rather looks like Carmen disowned him first.

A 17-year rift yawns between them. Carmen grows up, studies marine biology, marries and becomes a mother, all the while questioning the fundamentals: Is biology destiny? And for that matter, why can’t a man—particularly her father—be more like a woman? Alfred burns through marriage after marriage, procreating merrily but demonstrating no more aptitude for partnership and fatherhood than a polar bear or a hag worm.

True, he’d like to make and exception and be a dad for Carmen, and he works somewhat hard to persuade her that he cares, but he’s just too much of a narcissist to see her side of anything. His attraction to women looks more like addiction than actual love for anyone other than himself. He’s rendered impotent by any females over 30 and it appears he’s never gotten over his own abandonment by his mother when he was 12. Trust is clearly an issue. His women reinforce it by decamping with their children, one after another, fed up with his indiscriminate canoodling. Alfred once told little Carmen he’d rather be reincarnated as a frog than as a woman, and years later, Carmen reflects that this might be best all around.

Time ratchets onward.

Carmen is big with child again, and in a crisis with her husband, when the phone call from a Buenos Aires hospital comes. She flies to Alfred’s side—possibly for her last chance at reconciliation. Tough old Alfred responds to her ministrations, and reincarnation as an amphibian is postponed. The parallel tracks that both father and daughter ride have not yet reached the vanishing point, though. More painful rites of passage are to come for both of them. Alfred’s love-hate relationship with caves and Carmen’s impending labour result in epiphanies and untold agony for each. Resolution takes the form of truce with the inexorability of the life force.

Critics raved about Claudia Casper’s dazzling poetic intensity and the rich literary parallels and allusions in her first novel, The Reconstruction. Her second novel, however, is refreshingly prosaic and the story as elegantly plain and satisfyingly functional as a Shaker hatbox. She can smoothly convey the daily routine of a child’s growing up, capturing Carmen’s sensibility and passing it through the tempestuous needle of adolescence into a sensible and articulate adulthood. It’s a pleasure to follow each character’s story, unfolding as it does without judgment by its creator, so that by the conclusion, while readers might have longed for Alfred to get a little therapy and maybe Carmen, too, we see them muddle through hell toward each other. Handicapped as they are by such peculiar parental role models, it’s a marvel that they manage to connect as well as they do.

Quibbles? Carmen shopped rather a lot and Alfred drank a really big lot, and a Freudian would have a field day with caves and other parallel passages herein. But on balance, the novel is an organic rendering in fine, if occasionally banal, detail of the intertwined lives of two people from conception onward. It’s a skillfully told story with lots of life-juice and animal sensuality, perfect reading for the salty afternoons of midsummer.