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Clara Callan first editionFirst edition

Clara Callan

Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Literary, epistolary

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 168,000 words

Clara Callan


The Claras in our lives

What is it with Canadian writers and their fixation on solitary women? Off the top of my head I can list nearly a dozen novels that explore the private lives of unmarried, widowed, or divorced females struggling through what appear from the outside as mundane existences, usually recalled in later years.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. These works are almost uniformly good reading. I'm glad to have the stories of seemingly unstoried lives, to experience exceptional writing about the seemingly unexceptional people who lead lives of quietly facing up to the challenges that nature, society and others have thrown up around them.

Along with handling the panoply of other topics from everyday life, Richard B. Wright wrote at least two such books focusing on stalwart single women. Clara Callan struck the deepest chord with both readers and critics, becoming a surprising international bestseller, as well as sweeping every major literary award Canada had to offer.

Wright's natural, unadorned speech placed in the mouths of Clara Callan and her correspondents draws one into their lives of quiet desperation without any awareness of how fine the writing is.

After immersing yourself in this novel, you can't help think about other Claras in your lifeā€”an estranged aunt touched with some unspoken scandal, a childhood neighbour you were warned to steer clear of, or maybe even a slightly eccentric parent or grandparent you always considered embarrassing and kept yourself from knowing well, as Elizabeth Anne Callan relates about her relationship with her mother in the novel's afterword. It makes you want to go back and try to figure out more sympathetically what was really going on with them.

That afterword may be the most affecting part of Clara Callan. Not because it's particularly emotional in itself, but because it puts in perspective everything else that came before.

Most of the novel up to that point is delivered via letters written between Clara and sister Nora in the mid-1930s. Clara's a single school teacher and amateur poet still living in her childhood home in a gossipy, bleak Southern Ontario village. The younger Nora has struck out to New York where she's found a measure of success acting in radio serials and enjoying the big city life. You might expect issues of sibling rivalry to dominate their correspondence, but they never do, as the sisters sincerely care for each other, even at a distance.

The epistolary form, however, flattens the drama. No one is going to delve too honestly into their inner lives in weekly hand-written missives. The more exciting news may come with triple exclamation points but psychological depth is not part of the story told by letters. For that we have to read between the lines, to note what Clara is not telling her sister.

The shutting out effect

We get a little more directness in letters that Clara also starts exchanging with Evelyn, a lesbian writer and friend of Nora in New York, but this correspondence mainly gives Wright a chance to namecheck the books and authors of the time. Occasional orrespondences with other individuals are used to advance the plot.

Clara's diary entries from the period are also included and are much appreciated as they do spell out more of what she's going through, her relations with others in the community and, more directly, her thoughts and feelings.

Yet, even here there's a kind of flatness. A horrendous rape scene is described with almost clinically spartan detail. Clara's reaction, read from today's perspective, is distinctly odd. Of course, there is no one proper response to rape, and it's hard to know how in that long-ago decade in smalltown Ontario a victim's psyche would be affected. That she would not tell anyone, not even her sister, is understandable. Clara's apparent practical response, her repression of the horror and her cringe-worthy references to the tramp who raped her as "my Charlie" are all signs of the emotional shutdown of a woman who is reserved at the best of times. However, we can only guess at this, since her composed letters and diary entries cannot give us the kind of deeper insight into what's happening inside her that we yearn for. This shutting out effect may be what the author was going for. But though I generally appreciate Wright's understated style, I can't say I'm happy with it in this case.

Later a sexual affair with a married man who takes advantage of Clara is handled with much more open and expressed feeling. It also helps that sister Nora goes through similar experiences in her more cosmopolitan, intellectual setting, making clear the married-man/single-woman story is a universal one.

The novel's narrative via letters and diary ends with the birth of the daughter, related again in matter-of-fact fashion, and with a truly brilliant passage in Clara's most poetic hand.

The afterword by Elizabeth Anne some sixty-two years later catches us up with the fates of the three women we had been following through the 1930s. But it also causes us to consider adjusting some of what we think of them, Clara especially. It's an open question whether the daughter's learning the life of her mother before she was born is best revealed at the end of the novel as it is. The work may have been better served by placing the daughter discovering the letters and diary at the beginning, and perhaps throughout, so we get a fuller effect of her child's view of a seemingly strange parent being undercut by the revelations as she reads through the materials. That would make for a less flat and claustrophobic narrative.

It might also wreck what Wright was going for. And might end up creating one of these fragmented postmodern messes that people struggle to read and then forget. Easy to suggest such editing changes, harder to make work.

And it has to be admitted Clara Callan as it stands now is a memorable walk in the shoes of someone we should have known and otherwise never would.

Now get out and look around for the other Claras in our lives.

— Eric McMillan


See also:

The Stone Angel

The Diviners

Margaret Laurence

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood

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