It is very easy these days to drive over a bridge, walk along a sidewalk or even relax in a park and not realize that there were once people who once lived in that spot. These people once toiled, anguished and lived their lives in that very area we rush over and barely consider. But Rachael Preston has given us a narrative to consider about one such area in her novel The Fishers of Paradise.
The sledgehammers fall silent and the house shifts forward with a wooden groan. Like an aged swimmer anticipating the starter’s pistol, it wavers a moment in the wind, knees creaking with the newly uneven weight, and then, in a slow choreography, the stilts fold under themselves and the house slides into the marsh. Water and birds explode into flight, squirrels leap from bare trees. The sound, magnified by the geography of this enclave of lake and forest, by the stillness of the grey morning preceding it, ricochets a warning. The surface churns, and muskrats and beaver dive to the muddy bottom where carp and pike and bass huddle in the reeds. Water rushes over the porch of the two-storey home, washing against the door and window as the house lurches drunkenly in it own wake.
No sooner has the lake settled than the thrum of an engine, expensive, throaty, cuts through the silence that has claimed the small crowd gathered on their docks and porches to say goodbye. A gleaming mahogany powerboat noses out from between a set of weathered boathouse stilts like some exotic, temperamental animal and guns into the marsh, leaving behind the heady scent of gasoline. The boat alone, a Grew recently confiscated from bootleggers who ran contraband liquor across Lake Ontario, is worth standing outside in the November cold to see. Its current owner claims he can still smell the cordite along the three grooves carved portside by glancing bullets.
The driver circles the floating house, making it bob again, then eases back on the throttle and slows to an idle. His passenger turns in his seat to face the front door.
Everyone watches and waits.
Five minutes pass. Six.
Egypt Fisher stands at the shoreline, thinking her eyes might dry out from the wind if the door doesn’t open soon.
I always get grumped at if I don’t post a review for a while which usually means that I am savouring a book. And this book is worth savouring. Preston has truly crafted an engrossing story around a section of Hamilton, Canada that most people may not be aware that existed. Set in the hardships that occurred in the 1930s, teenage Egypt Fisher must deal with the gentrification plans that the city has planned for her boathouse community along the Dundas Marsh. And while that is going on, she starts out being thrilled that her estranged father has returned to the family fold, but it is soon apparent that events will soon rip her life completely apart.
Egypt sits with her knees hugged to her chest, shins pressed against the table edge, and watches her mother from behind the veil of her hair. Blurred. Slamming cupboard doors, banging pots and dishes. Laura marches back to the wash basin and repeats her earlier scrabble through the mess of Russian dolls, lipstick tubes, envelopes, hair clips and pencils that sits on the odds-and-ends shelf below the mirror. Aidan watches Egypt pushing the cooling lumps of porridge around her bowl. She throws him a warning glance and then gathers a spoonful and dangles it beneath the table. George pads over to investigate, sniffs and flops down again by her feet. When Aidan giggles, she glares at him. Then at her mother’s back.
“So did you kick him out or did he leave again?” Her words part the air and free-fall slowly, landing with such a force that she stares at the kitchen floor, expecting to see a small crater. Her mother leans across the table and pulls Egypt’s hair back from her face.
“Your father has always marched to his own drummer.” Egypt recoils from her sour breath, her ragged, chewed-on lips. “And if you believe anything I have ever done or said has any influence on whether he comes or goes, then you haven’t been paying proper attention.”
“I heard everything you said last night.”
“No, you just think you heard everything. Aidan, go back upstairs while I talk to your sister.”
“But nothing. Go.”
“But I can hear everything you’re saying from upstairs anyway,” he mumbles, dragging his feet towards the stairs.
“Now both my children talk back to me,” she says when Aidan has finished thudding up the stairs. “I suppose I have you to thank for that?” She’s back to searching drawers, inside the tea caddy, the pockets of jackets hanging by the door.
“And who do we thank for our absent father?”
Preston has mixed the right combination of historical and coming-of-age novel together here. Her words are vivid – not only in describing scenes but also in expressing emotions of her characters. There is at times a clear feeling between what a character is feeling and the reader experiencing it themselves. This is a book that should be read at leisure – not to be raced through- in order to appreciate the carefully chosen words and phrases that Preston has used.
As far as home goes, she doesn’t trust herself not to snap around Laura. She even mention your grandparents? Not a word. Quite the feat when you think about it, keeping your parents from your daughter, your daughter from her grandparents. A virtuoso performance. Bravo, Mother. Egypt swallows a needle or rage. Ray presents another set of problems: years of pining over her father’s absence, of remembering and reconstructing her childhood in obsessive detail, and now that he’s here, in the flesh, Egypt finds herself chafing at the invasion of her home. He swings between a tetchy abrasiveness and protracted bouts of grim silence. Impossible to ignore, his moods, like tainted water, affect everyone who comes into contact with him, bar the bleary-eyed and leering friends he collects like stray dogs, and whom Egypt often finds (or hears) snoring on their couch in the morning. He can dismantle a room – and its occupants – just by standing in the doorway. A blue pall of cigarette smoke hangs in the air even when he isn’t around. It’s as if half a dozen people have moved in with them. And he’s beginning to scare her. Having woken at the crack of dawn yesterday, she was first downstairs. Ray was sitting at the kitchen table, red-eyed and muttering to himself. His cot hadn’t been slept in. He looked hunted, cadaverous. The flesh had shrunk from his face in the night.
And yet, like the pricking wax and wane of nausea, Egypt senses the devastation she would feel if he left again. Ray Fisher is her dad, her family and though he wielded the news as a weapon – to hurt her or to make her stay and listen, she can’t decide which – he has brought more family in his wake. A month ago, Egypt’s family numbered three. Now it stands at six.
The Fishers of Paradise by Rachael Preston is a read worthy to savour. It is vividly description and emotional and in a subtle way enlightening. In short, a pleasure to read.
“I would say having lived in a lot of places affects what I write about, and the kinds of stories I’m drawn to: displaced people, the marginalized, those who don’t quite fit it” | Q&A with author Rachael Preston