Review: The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2012

She can’t love the people in the pictures; she does not know them. She can hate and fear the men with their bayonets. She can pity the tortured. But she cannot love. It is too painful to throw love like a rescue line to humans doomed to suffer, already dead and gone. She will remember forever, and yet never well enough, never with the particularity of love: these people whom her parents have come to save from suffering, who continue to be killed, whose killing will not end the suffering of others, whose torture and murder fall like drops of rain and vanish in the punishing sun.

Words. They scrape along her skin, enter, and the wound heals instantly. She appears unhurt. She does not suffer nightmares or wake in a cold sweat or fear for her life, because she does not believe it could happen to her.

That keeps her safe: belief that she is different, her family unique, marked out for protection by their skin colour and their citizenship and, yes, by their goodness, their rightness. So much of what she believes is wrong, but if it is never proven to be wrong, how will she ever know?

***

Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories follows the Friesen family’s journey from 1984 to the present day, from an unpredictable life in Nicaragua to a disjointed, directionless one in Canada. Beginning with the American involvement in Nicaragua’s post-revolutionary war, the Friesens, a family of peace activists led primarily by husband and father Bram, travel to Nicaragua to live and protest the Reagan administration’s presence. Bram, Gloria, and their three children—the titular Juliet, Keith, and infant Emmanuel—meet other activists and North American ex-pats. Friendships are made, lives changed… and lives threatened. However, Bram’s passion for activism selfishly trumps the needs of his family, and when a medical crisis threatens their equilibrium, Gloria and the children are forced to abandon Nicaragua for Canada.

Divided into two sections—the childhood-in-Nicaragua based “Amulets” and the adolescent/adulthood-in-Canada “Disruption”—The Juliet Stories is an uneven read. The two halves of the book are, sadly, not tonally cohesive. Both have their strengths: the childhood inability to perceive threats and consequences with their due gravity gives the “Amulets” section some much needed innocence; meanwhile, the more temporally expansive “Disruption” is a more emotionally exposed section that effectively builds the character of Juliet from a stark, one-dimensional child into a more fully realized personality.

However, both sections are somewhat overshadowed by their weaknesses. An artificial sense of distance invades the “Amulets” portion of the book, constantly pulling the reader away from the children, so much so that the language often feels stunted and unemotional. It’s as if this section were a nature documentary being narrated by an uninterested third party. “Disruption,” on the other hand, is more linguistically involving, though its quick leaps through time—covering a much wider breadth than her childhood in Nicaragua in “Amulets”—dampen the revelations Snyder has in store for Juliet and the rest of her family. In short, the plot components of “Amulets” outstrip its characters, while the reverse is true for “Disruption.”

Overall, The Juliet Stories, while intriguing in narrative, is unfortunately marred by an overwhelming sense of sterility. Though the writing is beautiful in fits and spurts, with little poetic asides that juxtapose the naivety of childhood and the very real threats faced by the Friesens, there’s desperately little life in these pages. Certainly not enough to make me feel as if Juliet or any member of her family were ever more than a partially realized collection of delicately written thoughts and unrealized ideals.

While by no means a “bad” book (Carrie Snyder is an intelligent wordsmith, that much is obvious), The Juliet Stories is, for me, an unfortunate failure. I felt strongly that I should care more for Juliet and her family than I did, but the at-a-distance writing and lack of personality gave me nothing to hold onto. In the end, Juliet and her family remain as distant to me as they were in the beginning.

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