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Margaret Sweatman

Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, 1991. 200pp, paper, $11.95
ISBN 0-88801-154-7. CIP

Grades 12 and up/Ages 17 and up
Reviewed by Louis Reimer.

Volume 19 Number 4
1991 September

In Fox, her first novel, Winnipeg writer Margaret Sweatman presents an intriguing blend of personal drama and historical event. The turmoil of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike links and alters the lives of four young people - the wealthy and fragile Mary; Eleanor, whose desire for independence from her establishment background coincides with a fascination with labour politics; MacDougal, the leftist bookstore owner; and Drinkwater, the budding entrepre­neur.

The author shuns straightforward narrative to provide a sometimes bewildering collage of episodes, diary entries, newspaper captions and articles, poetry, letters, political rhetoric and meandering interior monologues. Readers hoping for a garden variety historical novel will likely be disap­pointed by the obfuscated plot line.

As a writer, Sweatman savours and delights in language. She possesses astounding skill in connecting words in startling and expressive ways. Stunning images abound, as in the description of Mary's awakening to "watch the sun petal through the earnest spruce trees, sun shimmer, coffee-coloured shadow." Occasionally, though, the barrage of exquisite images seems to lend an air of self-consciousness to the prose. Sweatman's use of language makes for demanding reading; sharp staccato sentences contrast with those that wind and twist, eschewing direct expression and standard syntax.

While the novel maintains historical integrity, readers with some knowledge of the events of the General Strike will find themselves at an advantage. References, such as those to the Labour Church and the Hello girls, are often made with inadequate explanation for the uninitiated. However, the upheaval, the terror, the violence, and the human cost of the strike are conveyed in wrenching detail and image.

Sweatman's care with respect to such areas as language and history is not echoed in the novel's characterization. The characters lack full development and remain, throughout the story, tantalizing but shadowy figures from whom the reader remains emotionally distanced.

While Fox is a brave novelistic venture, its non-traditional bent will limit its appeal to readers with a taste for literary fiction with an experimental flavour.

Louis Reimer, Edmonton Public Library, Edmonton, Alta.
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