If there ever was a time and place to explore the territory of mature women and their journeys this would be the time. The subjects of sex, passion, confidence in JoAnn McCaig’s An Honest Woman are beautifully played out against society’s stereotypes of women as they age and as they confront the truths of themselves outside the societal frameworks in which they have been boxed.
There are metafictional elements turned loose in this novel. First, there is an intensely self-conscious narrator and second, there are characters who live inside fictional worlds and travel outside those worlds for intense real-life encounters. Their storytelling draws attention to themselves as both living, breathing people but also fleshed-out fictional world characters.
The structure of the novel is complex, layered, and interwoven. There are several narrators, stories within stories, and writers making things up and fantasizing while living real (albeit fictional) lives. There are literary allusions galore and cameo appearances by thinly disguised famous authors. It can all get a little crazy, so McCaig has provided a few support materials: an infographic that maps out the different characters, and relationships and authorships, a fairly detailed table of contents, a few postscripts, and a couple of appendices. Watch for symbols that indicate that the narrator has lapsed into fantasy and for when she returns to her "real" life, such as it is. That said, An Honest Woman has enough grounded familiar plot lines to keep a general reader interested and layered ambiguities to keep the well-read interested. While there is some undermining of traditional literary conventions, there is nothing lost in McCaig’s exploration of the relationship between literature and life. The novel is humorous, and sometimes really funny; it is also a smart and warm and moving read.
JoAnn McCaig is a very bookish person, and is the author of a novel, The Textbook of the Rose, and of a critical study, Reading In: Alice Munro’s Archives. She taught university English for many years and now is the co-owner of an independent bookstore in Calgary.