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Fiction Contemporary Women

The Holding

by (author) Merilyn Simonds

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
Contemporary Women, Literary, Multiple Timelines
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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New York Times Editor's Choice

Alyson Thomson has left the city for an abandoned farm in the Madawaska hills of Ontario, with Walker, a potter. There, they live a life of artistic and emotional independence, until eventually the isolation brings to the fore tensions and conflicts within the relationship. After a tragedy enters Alyson’s life, she uncovers, in the ruins of a decrepit log cabin, the hidden writings of a young woman who lived on their land more than a hundred years before. As Alyson reads the harrowing tale of Margaret MacBayne, who left behind hardship in a Scottish seacoast town for the Canadian bush in 1859 with the hope of building a new life, she finds Margaret’s story comes to parallel her own in disturbing and unpredictable ways. A brilliant illumination of the lives of two women who occupy the same place a century apart, The Holding reveals the things we keep most guarded, whose truths often lie in unexpected places.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Merilyn Simonds was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and spent her childhood in Brazil. Her books include The Holding (2004), the internationally acclaimed short story collection The Lion in the Room Next Door (1999), and The Convict Lover (non-fiction, 1996), which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Arthur Ellis Award, and won the TORGI Award. The Convict Lover premiered as a stage play at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 1998.

Simonds has worked as a freelance writer and a magazine editor, has taught courses in literary non-fiction, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges and universities in the U. S. and Canada. She has won several national awards for her magazine writing.

She lives outside Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, writer and translator Wayne Grady.

Excerpt: The Holding (by (author) Merilyn Simonds)

I am a woman Alone in all the wide World.
Until today I had three Brothers, William Wallace, Robert Bruce, Harry Douglas, named for good Scots heroes, every one. Margaret the Queen, they called me. Now the Queen has taken her Revenge.

Margaret pauses, regretting the baldness of the last sentence. But it ­won’t do to start crossing out. As it is, she has but a few pages at the back of the old book on which to tell her story. The task nearly overwhelms her. If only she could put it on paper as it exists in her mind, years recollected as a single moment — the seawall at Pittenweem, the Madawaska hills, the crossing, the clearing, Ewan, all one.

But time and space rule the page, force her to chip at the round stone of memory, choosing this bit, discarding that, so much overlooked, abandoned as she rearranges the fragments to make a path from then to now, from there to here where she sits on a stump within view of the cabin, the plates of rabbit stew unwashed on the table, sauce congealing on her brothers’ lips.

There’s just time to make this record, leave something of herself behind, then she’ll find her way out.

That was how it ended, but where does it begin?

Pittenweem. A small child on her knees, coarse grass pressing crosshatches into her skin. She is pushing a little boat around a puddle, a boat she fashioned from a scrap of paper she found blowing down the wynd. She wore it like a cap as she rambled the brae, looking down upon the cottages that clung like gannets’ nests to the cliff at the heel of the bay. Coming across the puddle, she removed the hat and kissed it, setting it on the water, keeping it steady with one hand until she spied the brown lug­sail, her father’s boat, the Mairead, moving out through the Firth of Forth, pursuing the herring, the silver darlings, into the perilous North Sea.

Seven times she circles the boat around, not sunwise but the other way, withershins, her eyes never off the dark sailcloth though it shrinks to the size of a pocket handkerchief, an envelope, a stamp. Then she stops, and as if impatient with her game or with a puddle so circumscribed, she strikes the paper sail, capsizing the little craft.

The child hears her name called and turns to see her mother running through the gorse, the flowers a shifting golden flame against the dark sky of the woman’s skirts.

The mother scolds the girl as she pulls her to her feet. Have you no thought for your father and brothers? Come, bring this wee Fifie to safe harbour.

And she stretches her daughter’s hand, forces her fingers to the sagging sail, but the child will not take hold. The two of them stand, their backs to the sea, wind fingering their red-­black curls, mother and daughter, alike as two leaves on one tree, each stubborn as the other.

The mother relents first. With her own hand she sets the boat right and guides it to the shore, lifting it into her apron pocket. You’re an odd one Margaret Jannet, with your tempers and your stares. Whatever shall become of you?

We will leave this place, she says, the words told to her so often they come to her as memory.

The wind, like a gossip, is everywhere. It fusses with their hair as they stand on the braehead and it writhes through the village kirkyard, too.

Margaret is older now, as tall as her mother. Her bedgown jacket, printed with blue heart’s-­ease, billows gently at her chest and her layered petticoats, the topmost one drawn back as an apron, give the appearance of widening hips, though by the slimness of her hands it is clear she is still a girl. She stands with her mother before the family marker, a plain grey stone like all the rest, inscribed already with too many names. Sophia, Robert Roy, and James Henry, all lost to the cholera, the babies Isobel and Bride, dead even as they entered the world, and the most recent, Angus Stewart, lost at sea when Margaret was only seven. For him, the weight of stone holds nothing down.

You ask too much of me, her mother whispers, although her father is nowhere near.

A sway of dark skirt, and Margaret leans to glimpse a woman slipping between the graves. She follows, for she has seen her before, though always at a distance, gathering simples on the brae or seaweed on the tidal rocks, pausing by the kirk tower or at the lip of the seawall, gazing down at the water that worries the stones, one hand fixed on the last bollard as if she were tethered to it. There is something odd about her clothes, the old-­fashioned white cloth she wears under her head-­square, the rough weave of her skirt. Odder still is her bearing, something furtive in her posture despite her frame, which is sturdy, and her glance, which is compelling, defiance in her eye. Margaret has followed her down the wynds from High Street to the Shore but she loses her every time, once by St. Fillan’s sea-­cave, once in the knot of fishermen that gathers at an upper turn to stare across the roof­tops, taking measure of the weather as it moves across the Firth. The old woman is an incomer, a stranger to the village who seems to pass unnoticed by everyone but her.

She pursues her now between the obelisks and the monuments until at last she has her trapped. The old woman turns to face her, a slight smile on her lips, as though this was her intention, the two of them alone in a crease of wall where the grass grows high and the markers are laid flat as if to make certain the dead keep to their place. The old woman regards Margaret with encouragement, a promise in her gaze, but before the girl can think to ask who she is or what she wants, the woman takes a step back and dissolves through the stones.

But that is not where the story starts, in childish games or faintly smiling ghosts. It begins, like birth, in blood.

Editorial Reviews

“Seductive, compelling, The Holding takes us on a haunting journey into the wilds of both the land and the heart. Merilyn Simonds’s crystalline prose is exquisitely crafted – spare, evocative, wise. I was swept away.”
–Sandra Gulland

“A narrative page-turner.… As engrossing as the most intensely crafted psychological drama.… Compelling, hypnotic.”
Globe and Mail

“The novel soars and pulses with life because of the exquisite detail.… A fascinating plot and an extraordinary sense of place.”
Vancouver Sun
“[A novel] with a fresh psychological twist and poetic sensibility.… Breathtaking.…”
Quill & Quire
“Highly accomplished.… Beautifully executed and researched.…”
–Montreal Gazette

“Her characters trace an urgent, almost mythic fate in which a stony farmstead becomes the stuff of their own bodies and dreams. Rarely has this connection been explored so intimately.”
–John Bemrose

“Evocative, haunting, seductive. Simonds writes beautifully, imbuing the landscapes she describes with luxurious detail.…”
Books in Canada
“A mesmerizing novel of parallel lives lived on the edge of wilderness. Simonds’s language masterfully evokes the natural world, and her story is a moving testament to the healing power of that world.”
–Esta Spalding

“An extremely sensuous book, a lush book.…”
–Audrey Thomas, National Post
“Weaving shocking revelations and raw emotions at an assured pace and, at time, with exquisite prose, Simonds tells a haunting tale of life in the wilderness.”
Calgary Herald
“Her precise descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants … create an authentic physical reality against which the inner lives of the characters are revealed.”
Toronto Star
“A first novel full of poetic imagery and keen observation.… Simonds’s poetic touch is delicate yet sure, her prose well matched to the emotional and physical landscapes she has conjured up from the country’s past.…”
London Free Press
“Eloquent and haunting…”
Toronto Sun
“In Simonds’s gripping tale of two bush women, one contemporary, one pioneer, a wonderful third force is revealed – the euphonic, ubiquitous world of trees, herbs, wildflowers – one with the power to cure, give refuge, and mysteriously map the human psyche. A wondrous book, with no false notes.”
–Claudia Casper