- Winner, Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award - Fiction Book of the Year
- Winner, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book
- Winner, Canadian Authors Association Literary Award
- Winner, Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction
“What a wild ride — I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough,” Oprah Winfrey told her viewers as she announced Fall on Your Knees as her February 2002 Book Club selection. Set largely in a Cape Breton coal mining community called New Waterford, ranging through four generations, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s dark, insightful and hilarious first novel focuses on the Piper sisters and their troubled relationship with their father, James. Winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, it was a national bestseller in Canada for two years, and it has been translated into 17 languages.
At the start of the 20th century, James Piper sets fire to his dead mother’s piano and heads out across Cape Breton Island to find a new place to live, eventually eloping with 13-year-old Materia Mahmoud, the daughter of wealthy, traditional Lebanese parents. And so, from early on, Ann-Marie MacDonald establishes some major themes: racial tension, isolation, passion and forbidden love, which will gradually lead to incest, death in childbirth, and even murder. At the centre of this epic story is the nature of family love, beginning with the Piper sister who depend on one another for survival. Their development as characters — beautiful Kathleen, the promising diva; saintly Mercedes; Frances, the mischievous bad girl, who tries to bear the family’s burden; and disabled Lily, everyone’s favourite — forms the heart of the novel. And then there is James, their flawed father.
Moving from Cape Breton Island to the battlefields of World War I, to Harlem in New York’s Jazz Age and the Depression, the tense and enthralling plot of Fall on Your Knees contains love, pain, death, joy, and triumph. The structure of the narrative is multi-faceted, richly layered, and shifts back and forth through time as it approaches the story from different angles, “giving it a mythic quality that allows dark, half buried secrets to be gracefully and chillingly revealed” (The New York Times Book Review). As the details of the labyrinthine plot are pulled together, the question of whether it is possible to escape one’s family history gradually raises itself.
The book’s epigraph, taken from Wuthering Heights, seems appropriate to a novel concerned with the different, often violent, forms that love can take. On the inexorable journey towards tragedy we encounter dark yet vivid images of neglect and violence, yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, and yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, shimmering with emotional depth, sensual with virtuoso descriptions of the power of music. It is a saga haunted by ghosts and saints, religious fanaticism and magic. MacDonald gives the most ordinary lives extraordinarily dramatic dimensions.
The Sunday Times wrote, "It is the unpredictability of this huge book that is its greatest joy." With allusions ranging from Hollywood stars to religious tracts, Fall on Your Knees simmers with vibrancy and crackling, effervescent, breathtaking language.close this panel
They're all dead now.
Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.
Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.
Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.
Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.
So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.
Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.
There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.
Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.
Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.
Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."
And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.
But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?
But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.
All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.
Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.
Ann-Marie MacDonald was born in West Germany and spent the first few years of her life on a Canadian air force station near Baden Baden. Her father was an officer in the RCAF and the family was posted numerous times.
She attended one year at Carleton University, Ottawa, studying languages and Classics. She went to the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal where she trained as an actor, graduating from the program in 1980. She moved to Toronto where she began an acting career. She soon became involved in creating original Canadian work in a number of contexts: collective creation, collaboration and solo writing. The work always combined theatrical innovation, politics and entertainment. She worked as an independent artist, with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille as her principal theatre “homes.” Her seminal works include the collective creation This is For You, Anna, and the multi-episodic Nancy Drew: Clue in the Fast Lane. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was MacDonald’s first solo-authored work.
She continued to work as an actor in theatres across the country and in many independent films, including I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Where the Spirit Lives and Better Than Chocolate. As well, she guest-starred on numerous television series, most recently Made in Canada. MacDonald was last on stage in the spring of 2001 when she starred in a sold-out production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. Currently, MacDonald is host of the CBC series Life and Times.
Her more recent work for theatre includes the play The Arab’s Mouth, the libretto for the chamber opera Nigredo Hotel, the collectively created The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls in which she also performed, and, most recently, the book and lyrics for the musical comedy Anything That Moves.
MacDonald’s work as an actor and writer has been honoured with a number of awards, including the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award, the Dartmouth Award, the Gemini Award, the Chalmers Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award.
Fall on Your Knees was MacDonald’s first novel and is available from Vintage Canada. She lives in Toronto with her partner, her daughter and two dogs.close this panel
"Magnetic… a dizzying leap into a mind so rich and complex you spend almost as much time marvelling how she got there as enjoying the results… Compelling and original… MacDonald succeeds brilliantly in building a world that, at least for the satisfying length of time it takes to finish Fall On Your Knees, gloriously supersedes all else."
"Beautiful… this big, bold, epic shocker of a novel reads as if John Irving met Joyce Carol Oates. It is history told with a thumping, complex narrative… a host of colourful characters and a great big bow to psychology… Fall On Your Knees is the work of a big talent. It's a wild ride."
"[MacDonald is] a first-rate novelist.... [She] paints a Cape Breton landscape steeped in human emotion ... She has found the language of the heart that runs below everyday discourse.... There is no resisting this story."
—The Globe and Mail
"Ann-Marie MacDonald — one of Canada's most talented actors and playwrights — has provided us with yet another aspect of a talent that has no limits."
"Brilliant... Profoundly and refreshingly different.... MacDonald has constructed a plot worthy of Victor Hugo... A standout."
"MacDonald is a master of exciting story-telling, of suspense and surprise."
—The Montreal Gazette
"... a narrative presence that can look at the unbearable, and sustain the emotion of it, and deliver it up edged in mordant wit."
—EDITOR'S CHOICE, Notable Books of 1996, The Globe and Mail
"... a multi-generational saga ... carried off with great assurance and style."
—Philip Marchand, CRITIC'S CHOICE, The Toronto Star
"... utterly compelling — a brilliant take on the black themes of racism, physical and emotional battery, sexual abuse, suicide, and murder."
—The Vancouver Review
"Stunning...The book and the talent behind it are big. The story is riveting, the characters achingly human, and the writing will take your breath away...[MacDonald] has leapt into the first rank of fiction writers."
"A delicious story, one of those sweeping family sagas to take on summer vacation and savor.... MacDonald is a master of exciting story-telling, of suspense and surprise. She has a dramatic touch that can elicit gasps from readers."
"Not a single line is superfluous in this richly layered tale of the secrets within several generations of a Canadian family."
—Publisher's Weekly starred review February 24th, 1997
"Here is an explosive mix of family feuds and incest, musical dreams and melodrama, all shot through with a fierce guilt... Fall On Your Knees is a heady, haunting brew, carefully structured, witty and distinctive."
—The London Observer
"Some wonderful writing has come out of Canada in recent years from such authors as Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood. Now they are joined by the multi-talented Ann-Marie MacDonald... She is already a successful actress & playwright. It seems almost unfair that she should have written a brilliant first novel."