Amy Stuart's debut novel, Still Mine, became a bestseller as soon as it was published, but its protagonist has a path before her that is far less smooth. Luckily, she is a perseverator, a word that Stuart defines below, and she's in excellent literary company as well.
I learned the word perseverator in Teacher’s College. It is meant to define a person who applies unnatural determination to a task whether assured of success or not. In short, a perseverator is someone who fixates.
Arguably, perseveration is not a good thing. It is perseverance gone awry. Still, the word always stuck with me. I am a fan of doggedness; I figure I would rather be the type to fixate than the type to give up, and I relate to people who have a hard time changing tacks. When I started writing Still Mine, I wanted readers to watch my main character, Clare O’Dey, develop this trait over the course of the novel. I wanted her to become dogged, to perseverate on the events unfolding in Blackmore so that the reader might too.
In Canadian fiction, Clare is hardly alone in her doggedness. Here is a sampling—my favourite fictional perseverators:
The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence: Hagar Shipley
Years (decades?) after first reading it, I still consider this novel the book that turned me toward writing. The main character, Hagar Shipley, is so steadfast in her pride, so utterly unwilling to consider anyone’s perspective but her own. Even in her 90s, she is unlikeable and mean and awful to those around her, yet I still came away from the novel feeling love and empathy for her. How does a writer do that? Laurence masterfully allows her character to recount the past with a massive dollop of bitterness and just enough insight and regret to wholly engross the reader.
The Devil You Know, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi: Evie Jones
Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s 2015 thriller unfolds in Toronto during the 1990s, a time when Paul Bernardo’s spree of rape and murder was casting a shadow over the city and surrounding region. Evie Jones is a young reporter living alone for the first time and reporting on the Bernardo case, and her obsession with finding out what happened to her murdered childhood friend a decade earlier circles her into some very dangerous territory. This book is chilling and fast paced, but also serves as a powerful commentary on the female experience of navigating our worlds as if every dark or unknown space were filled with threat.
Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis: Majnoun the dog
Okay, so this character isn’t a human. But what I love most about all the characters in Andre Alexis’ Giller winner is their, um, doggedness. Blessed—or cursed—with the capacity for human thought and emotion, the novel’s fifteen dogs must reconcile their canine instincts with this newfound intelligence. The protagonist Majnoun in particular showed a devastating devotion to his human companions. This novel proves that we humans could learn a lot about loyalty from our four-legged friends.
The Bear, by Claire Cameron: Anna
Anyone who’s ever camped with children knows the particular horror invoked in this novel. After witnessing the gruesome death of her parents at the hands of a black bear, 5-year old Anna escapes their campsite by canoe with her 3-year-old brother in tow. What follows is young Anna’s remarkable determination to bring them to safety and to process what’s happened. This is a one-sitting read and a book that will stay with you for days and days.
Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler: Barney Panofsky
I’d like someone to write a scene where Barney Panofsky and Hagar Shipley share a drink and tangle over who is the most stubborn or unlikeable-yet-lovable character in classic Canadian fiction. Attempting to write his memoir as his mind fails him in old age, Barney’s goal is to discount the story of his life told in a book written by a friend-turned-enemy. Barney is unreliable and caustic, but still madly driven by the need to finally tell some version of the truth. Barney’s Version is sad and hilarious, just like its narrator, and among my top-ten must reads in Canadian fiction.
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews: Elfrieda and Yolandi
Imagine your beautiful and gifted concert pianist sister wants nothing more than to die. She keeps attempting suicide, leaving you to go to great lengths to anticipate and prevent her next effort. Based loosely her experience with her own sister, Toews’ novel is about depression, suicide, family, sisterhood, success and failure. It is unflinching and heartbreaking, but somehow still funny and even lighthearted, laying out just how tenacious we can be when it comes to protecting those we love.
About Still Mine:
Clare is on the run.
From her past, from her husband, and from her own secrets. When she turns up alone in the remote mining town of Blackmore asking about Shayna Fowles, the local girl who disappeared, everyone wants to know who Clare really is and what she’s hiding. As it turns out, she’s hiding a lot, including what ties her to Shayna in the first place. But everyone in this place is hiding something—from Jared, Shayna’s secretive ex-husband, to Charlie, the charming small-town drug pusher, to Derek, Shayna’s overly involved family doctor, to Louise and Wilfred, her distraught parents.
Did Shayna flee? Was she killed? Is it possible she’s still alive?
As Clare uncovers the mysteries around Shayna’s disappearance, she must confront her own demons, moving us deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of lies and making us question what it is she’s really running from. Twisting and electrifying, this is a get-under-your-skin thriller that will make you question what it means to lose yourself and find yourself in the most unlikely places.
Amy Stuart won the 2011 Writers’ Union of Canada Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers, and was a finalist for the 2012 Vanderbilt/Exile Award. She is a recent masters’ graduate from the University of British Columbia. Amy lives in Toronto with her husband and her three sons. Visit AmyStuart.ca.
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