The first book to be read off my "pick it up and dust it off" shelf: books that have been sitting around for dozens of years, forgotten and neglected. Hard covers - some of 'em first editions - that I've picked up at flea markets, second-hand bookstores or that have been handed down to me.
There are some insane treasures on my shelves -- unloved, unread -- and this is one of them.
It almost made my heart stop, it is so good.
Marian Engel - infamous for parlaying a detailed account of the sexual gymnastics involved in a brown bear and a librarian's love affair in the great north woods
into a Governor General's award - writes like a raft of Canadian women authors (Atwood, Laurence, Munro even) used to write. Deeply introspective, crafted and poetic, genre and gender role-defying, imagery and insight combining in this ... this ... extraordinary
way. Honest, mind- and heart-blowing accounts of women's experience that - to me at least - reads as personal, female, and very Canadian.
I say "used to" for two reasons: 1) because Engel died in 1985 leaving behind a small, diverse, largely overlooked body of work which is now a little hard to get your hands on. And you should, despite 2) it's dated, rooted in a time and place - and concerns - that don't really exist anymore or at least are not expressed in the same way as they were when she was writing.
Her contemporaries evolved, bringing their artistry and insights into new forms and expressions. Especially, of course, Atwood.
This is what you need to know: The Glassy Sea
and [b:The Handmaid's Tale|38447|The Handmaid's Tale|Margaret Atwood|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1294702760s/38447.jpg|1119185] share a common ancestor.
TGS is the account of a woman - born Rita to humble, bigoted, Protestant Ontario stock - who becomes Sister Mary Pelagia (the RCs and high Anglicans among you will have more background to understand that name) in a nine-member Anglican Order, the Eglantines. As they begin to die off, she leaves that world for 'the' world: one of marriage, a child, divorce, a slide into alcholism and promiscuous sex, i.e., sexual, spiritual, and emotional crises.
The prologue and epilogue frame the main story of her life retold in a letter to her Bishop, written shortly after she's made the decision to return to and revive (and become sister superior of) the Order. I forgive the ending - which wraps the story up in a way that felt too practical, too prosaic and too 'preachy' - for all that went before it, because of all that went before it.
It is a unique life's journey that speaks to me at the deepest levels. It is simply everything I read for, packed into 167 pages.
Rest in peace, Marian.