Review: Sandra Beck, by John Lavery

>>Published: September 2010

>>Finally got around to it: October 2010

Never before have the words “my happiness” been said with so much genuine feeling that, given the context, the resulting tone could be nothing but sad. Such is the case with Sandra Beck, the first novel from author John Lavery.

Known for his short fiction, Lavery writes this novel with a similar conceit—as a collective mosaic of memories that, through a series of peripherals, construct an emotional, physical and sexual blueprint of the titular character, Sandra Beck. Because this book is Sandra’s story, from start to finish, though she might refrain from ever stepping into the spotlight. Instead we are treated to two divisive viewpoints.

For the first quarter of the book, we see Sandra and her world through the eyes of her daughter, Josée. To Josée, Sandra is everything. She is her happiness, her world. She is even everything a person should never be to one who loves them so completely: not enough. Never enough. She is Josée’s life and is far removed from it at the same time. Years skip back and forth like a record warped and we see the daughter’s perspective change as she awakens sexually and moves away from the relatively constricted world of her parents.

The remaining three-quarters of the book are from the mind of her husband, Paul-Francois (PF, as he’s called more often than not). For the bulk of their lives, Sandra and PF have flitted in and out of each other’s circles, coming together, clashing, moving apart and finding one another all over again. With no destination in mind, PF drives for nearly 200 pages through Quebec back roads into Montreal with Sandra as a disembodied voice sitting in the backseat of his car. We see the many ways and many places they might have met for the first time; we witness the crimes PF has struggled to process as Chief of Police, watched him struggle through an interrogation as thoughts of Sandra and her ordeal rifle through his head. PF is a complex man, a difficult to understand man as we cycle through the different epochs of his life and the varied measure of a man he has built himself into, and all of it to service the memory of the woman he loved for most of his life.

Sandra. The mother, the musician with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who lost a foot to cancer—a procedure which the book itself, mirrored through the ones she uses to propel herself through life, uses as a crutch by which the story circles at all times. She’s an enigma—difficult to love, impossible to forget, and by the last pages of the book, someone you wish you could get to know for even a few pages more.

The story is not always clear, and in some cases the diction proves difficult in establishing a rhythm, but Sandra Beck is further evidence that some of the best work, the most experimental work, is coming out of Canada these days. I’ve been torn as to whether or not I should recommend this book, knowing full well that it has a very specific audience and is most certainly not for everybody. But in the end I have to throw my weight behind this title. It really is like no other, and in getting to know Sandra through the people that loved her, I feel like I’ve seen more deeply into the heart of a character than any I’ve read in a very long time.

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