Friday, January 29, 2010

Brown Dwarf

One of the highlights of our 2010 list -- Spring & Fall -- is K.D. Miller's first novel, Brown Dwarf. A moving, fraught psychological drama, a murder mystery, a painfully heart-rending settling of accounts, it is one of only a few manuscripts I've read in a sitting. I found it completely unputdownable. Jeet Heer has called her, in The Ottawa Citizen and elsewhere, Canada's best short story writer; Brown Dwarf will hopefully have him and others calling her simply one of Canada's best writers.

Here's a short description of the novel, and below that, Brown Dwarf 's first section.

When Brenda Bray, better known to the world as Rae Brand, the author of the popular "Elsinor Grey Mystery Series", returns home to Hamilton, she is set upon by vivid memories of the summer of 1962 when she struck up an intense relationship with a classmate, and together they sought to track and catch an escaped serial killer believed to be hiding out on the escarpment. Brenda and Jori search for this elusive murderer, their friendship twisting as the summer proceeds, becoming tautly fantastic and pre-adolescently sexual, eventually resulting in real tragedy. As the story of that summer unravels it becomes apparent that the headlines about Jori's disappearance only touch on the truth, and that Brenda must finally face up to that summer friendship and its results if she is going to discover any peace.

* * *


Brenda stares down at her saddle shoes. Navy and white, the navy parts like twin masks. When she wiggles her toes the white leather dimples like skin.

Jori is waiting for her. The way she always does. With her hands in her pockets and her head tilted back. Staring lazy-eyed out over the city. Just as if she doesn’t mind that Brenda’s holding them up. Again.

The white parts of Brenda’s saddle shoes were clean this morning. Now there are black scuff marks on them, and a smudge of dirt on one of her socks. She wishes she had thin, plain socks like Jori’s. Popcorn-stitch makes her ankles look thicker than they already are. But there’s more to popcorn-stitch, her mother says. They’re better value.

Jori is still waiting. She walked the ledge in seconds, just as if it was nice and flat and wide like the rest of the path. She didn’t inch along the way Brenda’s going to soon, holding her breath, grabbing at weeds that might pull out, clinging to corners of rock that might loosen and come away in her hand.

The first time Brenda made it across, Jori said, I’m proud of you, Brenda Bray. Brenda couldn’t look at her. Didn’t dare open her mouth in case she’d scream or cry. She had never hated anyone, not even Annie Bray, as much as she hated Jori Clement at that moment. And every time since then, she stands for long minutes thinking, I can’t I can’t I can’t. Then all at once it’s as if her feet think, Yes you can. And she hates Jori all over again.

Now the waist band of her skirt is starting to bind. She was going to wear slacks, but her mother made her change out of them because they’d gotten too tight for her to wear outside the house where all the world could see her. They looked indecent, Annie Bray said. (Sometimes Brenda lets herself think Annie Bray instead of my mother. She’s starting to do it more and more, especially when her mother says things like indecent.) All her other slacks were in the wash, so she had to put on a skirt. And that meant she had to put on her saddle shoes, because you can’t wear running shoes with a skirt. Just like you can’t go to church without a hat, or carry a white purse before the twenty-fourth of May.

She could tell Jori was surprised by the way she was dressed. Jori was in her usual Saturday outfit – blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a tan windbreaker over it and boys’ running shoes – the black and white kind with the red rubber circle at the ankle. (I get my clothes in the boys’ department. Daddy hates it, but Mummy tells him it’s just a phase.) Brenda kept expecting her to say something – What the hell are you doing in a skirt? Or, Jesus, Brenda Bray, we’re not going to a tea party. But she didn’t. She hasn’t said any of the other things Brenda keeps expecting her to say, either. How much do you weigh? What size do you take?

Brenda’s feet still won’t move. Maybe there’s a safety rule against walking a ledge in saddle shoes. What if she fell and broke her neck? Or worse, what if she fell and didn’t die, but got hurt so badly that her mother had to push her around in a wheelchair? If you’d done what I told you. If you’d stayed away from that Jori or whatever she calls herself. Day after day, for the rest of their lives.

It’s not really very steep here. If she did fall, she’d probably just scrape her knees and elbows. But she might rip her skirt, too, her perfectly good skirt that still has lots of wear in it and that cost good money. Annie Bray would demand to know how she did it, and would keep on at her until it all came out. Who she was with. What she was doing. Where. The where would be the worst part. No. Maybe the what. Except the who would be pretty bad too. There is absolutely nothing good about what they are doing right now. Not a single thing. And Jori is still waiting.

That waist band is almost cutting her in half. Brenda hopes it hasn’t rolled itself into a rope, because then the label might show at the back and Jori might see For the Pleasingly Plump Child stitched in pink thread.

“I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” she calls. It’s what she always says when they get stuck at the ledge.

Jori shrugs. “Take as long as you want.” That’s what she always answers. As if the two of them had just stopped for a minute to look at the view.

The city doesn’t look quite real to Brenda today. The bright October sun makes the shadows sharp. The streets could have been drawn with a ruler, they run in such straight lines down to the bay, and the tiny houses look perfect from this high up. No missing shingles or broken bricks or sagging porches. The trees look like somebody painted them green then shook drops of orange and yellow over them. Even the smoke from the steel plants is like something in a painting, shooting straight up into the pure blue sky. Brenda imagines the tiny people who live down there leading perfect little lives with no Pleasingly Plump labels and no Hurricane Annies and no ledges to cross and no Jori Clements waiting for them.

Jori is still waiting, with that cool smile of hers smoothing her mouth. Why doesn’t she just leave me here? Brenda thinks. What does she want with me, anyway? Wouldn’t she be better off without me?

She looks up into the sky. This would be the perfect time for her father to come rattling down out of the clouds in his bus. He would lift his Hamilton Street Railway cap to her and say, Hop aboard, Miss Bray! Then together they would drive up, up and away, for ever and ever amen.

She’s had that daydream for as long as she can remember. But ever since she’s known Jori, she’s been asking herself stupid questions, almost as if she wants to spoil it. How would your father recognize you, since he only ever saw you as a baby? Would he be disappointed at the way you turned out? Would you still be Pleasingly Plump in heaven? Twelve is too old for daydreams. She can just hear Annie Bray – A big girl like you.

Her feet still won’t take the first step onto the ledge. “I’m coming,” she calls. “Soon.”

Jori smiles. Says, “I know you are.”

No comments: