Having escaped the place in her youth, retired professor Sidonie von Täler returns to her ancestral Okanagan valley orchards still very much in the shadow of her deceased older sister Alice.
As she sifts through the detritus of her family history, Sidonie is haunted by memories of trauma and triumph in equal measure, and must reconcile past and present while reconnecting with the people she left behind.
Karen Hofmann's debut novel blends a poetic sensibility with issues of land stewardship, social stratification and colonialism. Her eye for period detail and characterization is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin or Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, while her lyrical realization of bygone B.C. pastoralia recalls the work of George Bowering.
About the author
Karen Hofmann grew up in the Okanagan Valley and is an Associate Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel, What is Going to Happen Next, in 2017. Her short fiction has won the Okanagan Fiction Contest three times, and "The Burgess Shale" was shortlisted at the 2012 CBC Short Fiction Contest. Karen Hofmann is an avid walker, and her writing explores the landscapes, both rural and urban, of British Columbia as well as the personalities and social dynamics of the inhabitants.
Excerpt: After Alice (by (author) Karen Hofmann)
The 5:40 from Calgary, descending to the runway a kilometre to the south, rattles her roof and screams, all throat and flash, over the little frozen lake. Explosions of scarlet and green light track down the lake, pulse through the ice. The leafless aspens flare silver, copper, and are reabsorbed into darkness. The jet's scream drops an octave, glissando. A spectacle of dragons, a kind of Valkyrie ride.
It's her signal to close her laptop, abandon her work for the day. She stretches and blinks, tumbles from the tight interlocking puzzle of her mental work, of her reading and writing, into the jet's destruction of silence, into the late afternoon of her empty house, as some component might peel from a shuttle and spin out into the void.
She had not thought, signing the papers for the house purchase, about the runway. Had not thought -- entranced by the house, which in August had been full of light and space; entranced by the green and breeziness of the valley, a long slip of light, air, shade, and Montreal sultry and crowded; entranced by the real estate agent's phrases: deer, ducks, lake path -- she had not thought. She had seen only the lake, sparkling; the bobbing waterfowl.
She had forgotten how, even as a child, she had thought this area a bleak pinch of the landscape, a dark and dismal passage. The hills in this stretch of the valley low, blocky, not pleasing. A sort of rocky knob, just to the south and west of the lake, scattered now with dead and dying pines, blocking the light, the sun setting behind it by early afternoon. The least desirable land in the whole of the valley.
Reserve land, of course: what was given back to the original inhabitants as least valuable. Rocky, boggy land; the little lake, shallow and muddy, an afterthought in a valley famous for its lakes. Given back in treaties, this unprepossessing twist of the valley. A shameful illiberality. And now she has bought a house here, a bargain because on leased land.
Normally at this time, she begins to prepare her evening meal, to dress a little salad, slice cheese, heat up a prepared dinner. But tonight she is going out. The invitation is for seven. She had forgotten, returning to the valley, how early people in this western part of the country dine. It's inconvenient, at the least. Not really time to eat before, though she doesn't remember a mention of dinner in the invitation. She is not confident that there will be dinner. And yet, there is scarcely time to eat now, before the children collect her. She must change her clothes, find the bottle of wine she has bought to take along as a gift.
She has not wanted to go out, anyway. She had not wanted to go to this party. It's our family, her niece Cynthia had argued. She had pointed out to Cynthia, reasonably, she thought, that family relationships were arbitrary, that a few congenial friends always made better company. But Cynthia had insisted, showing some temper, retreating into an assumed or real inability to understand her. And the boy had seemed to want to go, to want her to accompany them. So now she must go: she will hope that there is something to eat. No time to eat now: no time to eat properly.
She puts on her black wool trousers and a black turtleneck pullover, combs her hair. Adds her good gold chain with its locket, then takes it off. Too showy; too festive.
The wine is on the built-in rack in her kitchen. A good local red. Is that appropriate? She hopes so. She has not yet developed a sense of the local opinions about the valley vintners. Should she have bought Italian? Chilean, perhaps? But this wine proclaims itself award-winning, and cost thirty dollars. It must be an acceptable gift.
Unless, of course, Stephen and Debbie are not wine-drinkers. But she'd have heard that, wouldn't she, from Cynthia?
She finds a long, narrow paper bag for the wine -- one bought for the purpose, dark purple, with a cord handle. It had been difficult to find, in the heaps of holiday-themed packaging. She had not wanted to bring her wine in a bag decorated with either snowmenor gilt stars.
The Feast of the Epiphany. That's what today is, January 6th. Is the party a religious celebration? She recalls now that Debbie's family name was Ukrainian. Is it a Ukrainian Christmas party that she is going to? Have Stephen and Debbie reverted to some tradition?
Surely Cynthia would have said. But now she is doubly uneasy. Why had she agreed to go along? And why had she not insisted on driving herself? She does not like waiting for rides. People are rarely punctual.
At 6:45, she is waiting in her basement-entry vestibule, coat and boots on, wine bottle in its purple bag dangling from her gloved hand.
Praise for After Alice:
"For the beauty of its narrative descriptions, but also for many other reasons, After Alice deserves a place among the best of new Canadian literary fiction."
~ Julienne Isaacs, The Winnipeg Review
"I welcome Hofmann's refreshing voice with this wonderful book, one of the most interesting and exciting that I've encountered in ages."
~ Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This
"After Alice has the makings of a CanLit classic, with complex characters, heavy themes done with a light touch, and expert pacing. Did I mention that this is Karen Hofmann's first novel?"
~ Laura Frey, Reading in Bed
"This novel accomplishes so much ... After Alice firmly places [Hofmann] as an exciting new voice on the CanLit scene."
~ Kat Main, Alberta Views