Donna Bailey Nurse
What makes Marina Endicott one of Canada’s most beloved novelists? It has a lot to do with her dramaturgical skill; the way she transforms the page into a stage upon which her characters physically come to life. At the same time, she brilliantly conveys the crosshatch of emotions that exemplify the vicissitudes of the inner man. In novels like Good to a Fault which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for a GIller Prize, and The Little Shadows, which received a nomination for a Governor General’s Award, Endicott introduces individuals who feel strangely familiar. She invites us into greater intimacy with people we think we know.
No doubt, many of us know someone like Hugh Argylle, the 50-something gallery owner at the center of Endicott’s latest novel, Close to Hugh. Even though his mother lies dying and he is numb with grief, he continues to keep watch over an arty, vaguely loopy circle of family and friends. He sneaks $100 into his foster mother’s Ruth’s pocket, because she secretly struggles with finances. He encourages his foster sister Della to look on the bright side, even though her husband is taking a unilateral time-out and he prods Newell, an actor, to reconsider his engagement to an obnoxious theatre director. That’s not all. Hugh looks out for Della’s daughter L and Jason, his ex’s son, students at the high school for performing arts.
The action unfolds in a fictionalized Peterborough, Ontario, a small city associated in the Canadian imagination with the theatricals of Robertson Davies. “I don’t want people to think I am writing about the actual place,” Endicott told me when we met some weeks back at a coffee shop in Toronto. “But I chose Peterborough as a setting because it is a place full of people who have art as their main reason for being.”
Endicott, who was born in Golden, British, Columbia, lives in Edmonton with her husband an RCMP officer, their two children and their dog. In the early 80s she belonged to The Arbor Theatre in Peterborough, acting on the main stage, and touring and teaching classes. Close to Hugh draws upon a dramatic tradition of physical humour in which characters bend, stretch, leap, climb and especially fall down. Hugh falls off a high a ladder severely bumping his head. The effect is slightly Wizard of Oz; for the rest of the novel we wonder if we can trust everything he feels. He literally “falls for” Ivy, a Toronto actress in town to help teach the school’s master drama class. In one hilarious scene the normally mild-mannered Hugh winds up and socks the obnoxious theatre director in the eye. Endicott’s writing style is equally slapstick, involving countless puns like “Guess Hugh’s coming to dinner?” and “a bone to pick with Hugh” that produce comic misunderstanding.
And yet this is a tragic story at heart. At least once a day Hugh makes his way to the hospice to visit his mother Mimi who is sliding in and out of consciousness. His grief is tinged with resentment for the bouts of madness that led her to regularly abandon him as a child. As if to underscore this sorrow the whole town mourns the murder suicide of a depressed mother and her little boy. Readers’ emotions are so up and down we hardly know whether to laugh or cry.
“I was trying to write about the tragic part of ordinary life,” Endicott said, taking a sip of her steaming latte. “The task we have to accomplish is watching people die, dying ourselves, or getting over people dying. But if I am going to make you sit through something really, really sad,” she added, “then I am going to give you a couple of treats as it goes along. Because what makes death at all bearable is that it can be kind of funny. If it wasn’t we would just be down and cry the whole time. You couldn’t be alive if you couldn’t laugh a little bit.”
Endicott, who has thick auburn hair and a fair complexion laughs frequently - a pleasant, complicated music. She comes across as honest and kind with an affection for her characters reminiscent of Anne Tyler or Carol Shields. Now that she has released them to the world, she feels protective. “It’s a weird thing,” she explained. “I’ve been alone with these people- so close and for so long. Now that other people are meeting them, I am surprised how much I mind. It is not so much whether readers like my writing; it’s whether or not they engage with the people I know.”
The most commented upon aspect of Endicott’s fiction is her compassion which favours empathy over pity. Hugh’s bereavement is an excruciating portrait of despair generally reserved for parents who lose their children, not adult children whose parents pass away. “That is true,” Endicott agreed. “If you are an adult and your mother dies you are just supposed to be able to cope because it is natural.”
I knew Endicott had lost a sister to Hodgkin’s lymphoma several years ago. I wondered now if she had lost a parent as well: “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “My parents are both alive. My mother is 86 and my father is 84. He just retired from the Anglican Church. I have been in Toronto this past month moving them from their home of 50 years into a two-bedroom condo.
“But my mother has not been in good health for a long time,” she said. “She had breast cancer when I was six and I assumed she was going to die then. That was 50 years ago,” Endicott said smiling wryly and rolling her eyes. “I love my mother very much and I don’t want to lose her; but I’ve been considering the possibility of losing her all my life.”
When her mother’s cancer was diagnosed, Endicott’s father, Orville, an Anglican priest, gave up his parish to move the family to Vancouver where his wife would receive treatment. Her parents decided that he should use this rupture to apply to graduate studies in psychology. Endicott and her siblings were split up and farmed out to other families during this turbulent period. “My parents had four children at the time,” Endicott said, “and when I look back I see that they acted with incredible bravery. But it was a seismic shift. My idea when I found out about all these changes was that my mother would die. But of course, she didn’t die. She’s had lots of ailments and operations, but she’s a survivor.”
After Vancouver the family relocated to Nova Scotia where Orville attended Dalhousie. In time he would add psychologist and lawyer to the title of Episcopalian priest. Apart from his position at St. James Cathedral in Toronto, he became National Counsel to the mentally handicapped. Today a social justice prize is awarded in his name. For Endicott’s family compassion is a way of life. “Doing other people good was part of my upbringing for sure. But it’s more than that,” Endicott said. “I’ve lived all over Canada and in England and I saw this goodness in people around me. It seems almost like an imperative of some kind: We are compelled to lighten somebody else’s load. “
This is certainly true of Hugh who not only monitors his foster mother’s financial wellbeing, but offers his neighbour 10 thousand dollars to save the curio shop next door. His largesse may sound extravagant, but it’s not unusual Endicott insists. “I know a person who gave someone 10 thousand dollars to keep his shop afloat. I know two people who did this, actually. I did not pull that idea out of thin air,” she said.
Financial woe is a significant theme. To one degree or another, these characters struggle to make ends meet. Ivy accepts a teaching stint in Peterborough because it means one month’s decent pay. Considering his modest income, Hugh’s generosity seems reckless. Endicott’s foregrounding of finances is rare enough to feel incorrect or even experimental. The same can be said of her depiction of women who are not the resilient, independent-minded females we are accustomed to meet in contemporary fiction. Mimi, once a glamorous entertainer, fell apart when her husband walked away. Della’s fragile mental state is further fractured by her husband’s sudden departure. Della’s teenage daughter “L” observes the women around her with bewilderment.
Said Endicott, “There is one scene where L is sitting in a coffee shop looking out the window seeing all the mothers going crazy down the street; her own mother going into the law office, coming out all wild, getting into the car, turning around, driving off the other way. Then her friend Orion’s mother comes running down the street with her drapery flapping and then Jason’s mother Ann comes storming in. And L thinks, ‘How does a woman – a girl- understand how to be a woman without going crazy. Do we all go mad?’ ”
“I think it is important for us to let our girls see us crazy,” Endicott said, “to see how angry we are and that we are right to be angry. If we hid that from them how would they know that they can be angry? That there are things that they should be angry about?”
As far as Endicott is concerned, all the world’s a stage. Her characters’ multiple, multifaceted relationships span generations. L is not just Della’s talented, headstrong daughter, she is like a granddaughter to the fading Mimi. Hugh is not merely an uncle to L, he also serves as mentor for her burgeoning arts career. Ivy knows that loving Hugh means accepting his chilly ex-girlfriend and her son. Even though his mother is close to death, Hugh keeps his promise to throw his annual anniversary dinner for Della and her thoughtless mate.
According to Endicott, love equals tolerance. “The younger characters like L and Jason are extremely open-minded. What they are trying to find out,” Endicott explained, “is what not to tolerate.
“The adults, on the other hand are generously or patiently or irritatedly tolerating each other and trying to figure out how to tolerate their encumbrances. It is surprising and sustaining both how people continue to try. Even when life is awful, this is the thing that consoles us.”
In Close to Hugh ties born of time, tolerance and acts of kindness thrive despite the omnipresence of death. Endicott is not teaching us a lesson, but sharing her own generous vision. “The majority of people are actually trying to make things better,” she said. “There are a lot of novelists who are writing from a different point of view; they have been given a different kind of thing to say. But for me the thing I need to bring into the world is that it’s a little better than you think.”
Marina Endicott appears at the Eden Mills Festival in September.