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Laugh-out-loud funny, cringingly frank, desperately tender

February 19th, 2015 · No Comments

Catherine Gildiner, in Future Bakery (483 Bloor St. W.), one of her favourite spots in the neighbourhood, which “to me is like a small town.” The local resident says she’s “very attached to the Annex, and never wants to leave.” Photo Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News

Catherine Gildiner, in Future Bakery (483 Bloor St. W.), one of her favourite spots in the neighbourhood, which “to me is like a small town.” The local resident says she’s “very attached to the Annex, and never wants to leave.” Photo Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News

Gildiner explores literature, memory, and the passage of time in final memoir

By Annemarie Brissenden,

With Coming Ashore, the third instalment of her memoirs about finding her own place in a tumultuous world, Catherine Gildiner brings her Bildungsroman trilogy to a close. On the surface, the narrative picks up Gildiner’s story as she departs her Ohioan university, and covers her time at Oxford, her student teaching days, and her eventual arrival in Toronto. Always unflinchingly honest, even when portraying her own ignorance and folly, Coming Ashore is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times cringingly frank, and at times desperately tender.

It is also much more.

Underpinning the name-dropping (oh to have seen Jimi Hendrix perform live in a London basement, encounter Cecil Day-Lewis’s dishevelled appearance at high table in Oxford, or studied under Northrop Frye, all of which she recounts in her inimitable style) are meditations on memory, and philosophical treatises on the passage of time. Most enjoyable, though, are the passages that transform the stuff of life into a key that unlocks literature, particularly poetry.

Hearing Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” for the first time, in a poetry class at Magdalen College, for example, “drove me right back to Lewiston and Niagara Falls, where I had ‘the pebbles of my holy stream’: the Niagara Escarpment with its rough cliffs of fossils layered one upon another; the joy of the Niagara River in the spring, bubbling its fury while I stood safely on the warm rocks along the bank; the lemonade on the summer nights when fireflies danced, the ones my dad said only came to the home of perfect girls that looked like peaches in August.”

Gildiner highlights Thomas’s “exuberant innocence” while exploring her own growth from innocence to experience, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. As she writes, “what you once thought was life was really youth, and it was fading…. You don’t feel the steel cable of time. It tightens gradually, link by link, until one day you feel that shackle dig into your breast when you try to take a carefree breath.”

Experience tugs at the waves of innocence throughout Coming Ashore and even permeates Gildiner’s style.

She’ll lull the reader with a bucolic memory or comic tale, then conclude with a jarring sting that hits like the swipe of a scorpion’s tail. Such a narrative device doesn’t simply elevate the memoir from naïve reverie, it often foreshadows harrowing events that are yet to come.

In one passage, she describes the gowned men trooping across an Oxford quadrangle as looking “ominously mid-raven to me, especially when their capes and sleeves billowed in the wind. This was my first hint of how frightening these men could become.”

Indeed, these same men would prove decidedly unsupportive and much too couth when dealing with the aftermath of a brutal assault in the college’s female showers.

It’s something one doesn’t forget, and a key to understanding how this self-described Irish storyteller remembers everything with such accuracy.

“Everybody has stories that are locked in,” she points out, “moments in time that we all remember.”

“Some times of your life are so memorable that you can almost reach into your mind and touch them. The perfect memories get locked in with the horrific ones. It is the everyday tedium that gets wiped out, while the extremes go on file,” she writes, just before unpacking her discovery of “Fern Hill”.

Such moments, she says, are often “tied to psychological moments in time.”

And, as she writes, those “precious years between freedom from home and ‘settling down’ are so short in the fullness of time, yet vivid in memory.”

The poetics of transition—from innocence to experience—is the very stuff of this book.

 

 

Tags: Annex · Arts · People