A few years ago, in an interview with Herizons magazine, Ann-Marie Macdonald had this to say about sexual abuse:
“The act of abuse doesn’t take very long. It’s often a fleeting moment in one’s life, but the ripple effects – the water table is poisoned from then on, the food chain is poisoned.”
She was talking about the young protagonist of her second novel, The Way the Crow Flies, but she might just as easily have been referring to Fall on Your Knees, her disturbing debut novel of ambition, heartbreak and incest. Set in Cape Breton and, briefly, in New York during the days of the emerging jazz scene, Fall on Your Knees deserves the accolades it’s received over the years – it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was chosen as Book of the Month by Oprah, and has been translated into 17 languages. It is a masterpiece. And, as is often the case with such stories, its readers are divided into two camps: those who love it and those who – well, don’t.
I admit to being a member of the latter group right from the beginning. I didn’t love it because of the hype – because it received so much fawning attention – and because (I’m being brutally honest here) my own first novel, released the same year, didn’t. Don’t let anyone ever try to convince you writers are generous, altruistic souls, happy for every success of one of their members. To paraphrase La Rochefoucauld, “It’s not enough that one should succeed; other writers must fail.”
Reading it now, being older and, if not wiser, at least more sanguine about these things, I’m prepared to agree with Oprah. The book is simply stunning.
At the age of 18, James Piper, a piano tuner, falls in love with the daughter of one of his clients, a wealthy, Lebanese merchant. Materia is 12, going on 13, too young to marry, and so they elope. Her father is furious, and the family disowns her. After Materia gives birth to their first child, Kathleen, James realizes he has indeed married someone who is a child in every way. Materia has no interest in being a wife or taking on any “wifely” responsibilities. More than that, she find herself unable to love the baby and leaves its care and upbringing to her husband. Eventually she gives birth to three more daughters – Mercedes, Frances, and Lily, who dies three days later. Dimly aware that there is something unnatural about James’ obsession with Kathleen, Materia grows to hate him, and is comforted by a kind neighbour, Mrs. Luvovitz, who takes her under her wing, teaching her to cook and sew and generally acting as her mother.
Kathleen grows into a beautiful, intelligent young girl, gifted with a spectacular voice. James decides she will become an opera singer; he works long hours to afford her singing lessons, and encourages her to distance herself from the rest of the community – her classmates think she’s a snob and turn against her. Her only friend is her father. By the time she’s 14, James has become aware of the “demon” within him – his sexual attraction to his daughter – and fears he won’t be able to resist it. When Great Britain declares war on Germany, he enlists, mainly to remove himself from Kathleen’s presence. Materia rushes off to church, to thank Our Lady for sending the war. Unfortunately, James is only able to put off temptation for so long. After earning a Distinguished Service medal for risking his life several times over, he’s injured and sent home in December of 1917. Anxious to find another way to distance himself from his daughter, he arranges for Kathleen to go to New York to study with “the maestro”. Her world opens up – she discovers what it truly means to suffer for her art, and what it means to fall in love. Her great adventure comes to an abrupt conclusion when an anonymous telegram informs James that his daughter has become “ensnared in a net of godless music and immorality”. He rushes to New York and hauls her back to Cape Breton – nine months later she dies giving birth to twins. The story behind this, along with Kathleen’s New York narrative, is revealed near the end of the book, when we’re presented with the pages of her diary.
Macdonald’s research is extensive but I wouldn’t call it faultless. Some of the dialogue, especially in the early part of the book, sounds as though it was spoken by a teenager from the sixties: before an upcoming performance, Kathleen is so nervous, “I could puke!” She thinks her father is “so corny”, a term that didn’t come into popular use till the 1930s. Which was about when the term “teenager” itself began to be used, although Macdonald applies it to Kathleen in 1914. The book is full of small but annoying anachronisms: Materia, in 1898, teases James about money, calling him Rockefeller. Yes, Rockefeller was rich at that point but he wasn’t a household name – certainly not in the backwaters of Cape Breton. A gifted pianist, Materia plays Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in the summer of 1899 – the tune wasn’t published until that fall. When war breaks out and James is sent overseas, Materia prays he’ll be killed “quickly and painlessly” in Flanders. There’s simply no way she could have known that the fighting would take place in that particular part of France. And don’t get me started on the reference to Rudolph (as in the red-nosed reindeer) 20 years before the character was created.
But there are many things to like, even love, about this book. The bagpipes may be an acquired taste but I love this description: “A primitive reed instrument awakens something very old, and puts sorrow in a consolingly long perspective. Perhaps because grass is the oldest musical instrument for all kinds of people.” More than that, though, is what I can only call the courage of the writing. There have been other tales of incest but there is nothing even mildly derivative about Fall on Your Knees. In my opinion, this is mainly because of the characters – they are unforgettable. The wayward Frances, who carries within her the shame of being “bad”, and dies at 40 never knowing the fate of her only son. Mercedes, the good sister, whose selfless piety is a mask for utter despair: “Hope,” she realizes, “is a gift. You can’t choose to have it. To believe and yet to have no hope is to thirst beside a fountain.” And Rose, the black, cross-dressing pianist, Kathleen’s accompanist and eventually her lover. Even James, whose prurient desires have defiled both his wife and his daughters, proves himself worthy of respect in the hell of No Man’s Land. Macdonald is too good a writer to let any of them, even the despicable patriarch, become a stereotype.
Fall on Your Knees is as richly-layered, as eccentric, and as haunted as the Cape Breton landscape. And almost as beautiful.