This book review by Sonia Saikaley is not about a new book, but Ann Charney’s Life Class (Cormorant Books 2013) is apt for Canadian Writers Abroad, hitting all the right notes: foreign locales, expats, immigrants, and questions of identity. Ann Charney, born in Poland, now living in Montreal, also has a French connection: after McGill University, she studied at the Sorbonne. Her several books have been translated not only into French but also German and Italian. Her work has been honoured by the French government, which named her an officer in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Her book, Defiance in their Eyes: True Stories from the Margins (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1995) was a finalist in the QSPELL awards. She has also written for film and for such periodicals as Maclean’s, Saturday Night and Paris Transcontinental.
Life Class by Ann Charney (Cormorant Books 2013, 230 pages).
Reviewed by Sonia Saikaley
In Ann Charney’s novel, Life Class, about immigration, possibilities and overcoming, the protagonist, Nerina, a young refugee from Sarajevo, makes the most of a new life in a new country. Like many immigrants, she hoped for a better life by leaving her homeland and she left for good reasons: war and unbearable memories. She tries to turn her life around by moving from place to place: first Venice, then the Adirondacks, to Manhattan and finally Montreal. She takes whatever job she can find in hopes of getting closer to the “American dream,” which Nerina doesn’t seem to know in concrete terms apart from hints of wanting something more. Although it’s not a clear and focused goal, it is still there in her pursuit of learning more about American culture. “Nerina spends much of her spare time watching US TV programs dubbed in Italian. This is not a frivolous pastime…it’s her way of picking up useful clues about her next destination – how people live, what they eat, how they dress.” (p. 5) Having endured the breakup of Yugoslavia and the stray dogs that haunt her, she is a gutsy character with hope and determination.
But hope doesn’t show up right away. Nerina struggles with English, with low-paying jobs and with her status of being an illegal immigrant in Italy. At the beginning of the novel, while Nerina is living in Venice, she sweeps hair cuttings and is “…only biding her time in Italy until she can find a way to enter the US” (5). When Nerina finds a job in Venice as a nude model for an art class made up of mostly American students, she takes pride in her ingenuity to manage despite hardships: “The room is quiet…Nerina’s gaze strays upward, lingering on the high ceiling, the carved mouldings along the walls and the soft light filtering in through tall, dusty windows. The thought that no one knows she’s here pleases her. She’s proud to have found this job on her own and kept it secret. Keeping different parts of her life separate, as if there were a danger of cross-contamination, comes naturally to her.” (46-47) Charney captures how one abandons a past for the present, how one copes in a new environment despite a painful history, how one reinvents oneself in order to find some semblance of normalcy when one’s world has been crushed.
This novel is very timely given today’s current events with people fleeing war-torn countries and seeking refuge in faraway lands. Nerina keeps things to herself, as have many who have survived tragedies. Charney’s prose is natural and filled with fascinating detail as she conveys this. “There was no way she was going to tell Walter the truth about the packs of wild dogs that roamed the streets of Sarajevo during her childhood…Sometimes, when there were no people about, the snipers on the roofs of the buildings would use the animals for target practice…She couldn’t see the snipers, but the dogs were everywhere, even in her nightmares.” (66)
Most of the characters in the novel have fled to other countries. In Venice, Nerina meets Helena, a Polish-Jew, who, like Nerina, does not discuss her past, preferring to keep it hidden or reinventing herself completely to disguise the inner turmoil one would expectedly feel after having lived through and witnessed the atrocities of war. “Helena was once an immigrant herself – a young woman fleeing a country in ruins.” (3) Helena has mastered the art of manipulation while at the same time seeking out those in the art industry. She meets Nerina at the hair salon and convinces her to leave that unhappy, poorly-paid job to work for a wealthy American couple (and the possibility of getting a visa through them). Yet Nerina is equally discontented in this job. But when her on-and-off again boyfriend Marco, a fellow refugee, steals a diamond-and-sapphire brooch, Nerina doubts she’ll ever have the chance to head to America.
Dead-end job after another, Nerina’s American dream seems far from her grasp, but when Walter Scalin, an American expat living in Venice, offers her a marriage of convenience, she accepts and moves to the Adirondacks with Walter, where she lives in a small town, then eventually makes her way to the flashy, big city of Manhattan.
She has what it takes to get by: “Navigating the numbered grid of Manhattan is child’s play after the twisting streets and alleys of Venice.” (97). What Charney does incredibly well is show how a young woman who has suffered much finds faith to carry on. Day by day her English improves. She reads book after book and is quizzed by Walter on her new vocabulary. She has a tremendous amount of hope despite everything.
Nerina’s hope is what makes Charney’s book unique: her optimistic approach to the aftermath of war and the immigrant experience. Rather than describing the war in detail Charney chooses to focus on the positive things Nerina accomplishes. Although Charney does not go into great detail about politics and war, it is still there in the descriptions of the stray dogs, Nerina’s maternal grandmother and the death of Nerina’s parents. There have been countless books based on the immigrant experience and fleeing wars, often achingly heartbreaking, yet Charney has woven a complex rich story that portrays a character who won’t give up in spite of everything; there is a streak of hope in Charney’s writing.
Furthermore, the perception of trauma is handled in a way that steers the reader to feel an enormous amount of empathy for Nerina who, despite having gone through one of the most horrific things imaginable, is not bitter. She even manages to overcome her fear of dogs when she works for the demanding artist Meredith and is forced to care for her Afghan named Edward. Healing occurs through her walks with Edward in Manhattan; the closer she gets to the dog, the more she is able to relinquish painful memories and live in the moment. Edward is a metaphor for healing. “…there is a glint of sympathy in the dog’s eyes as she describes the source of her panic: the fear-filled streets of her childhood, the recurrent nightmares of being chased by a pack of hungry, wild dogs. It feels good to be able to talk about it, even if it’s only to an animal.” (109)
She also receives encouragement from Walter: “Everything is going to work out just fine, you’ll see.” (172) Nerina has big dreams. Hope for a better life, hope for a better future. The American dream. She has to keep moving and her movement is captured with scenes that are vibrant and poetic. “Through the window of the Trailways bus she can see rivulets of melting snow running down the mountainside and patches of green sprouting from the earth. A time for new beginnings.” (81)
Beginnings is a major theme in this remarkable work. How does one start all over again and, more importantly, keep going in spite of setbacks? Charney’s approach to this universal question is handled with an astounding freshness in this complex and ambitious novel. A great novelist is one who tells us something new about the human spirit and Charney has succeeded in doing this. The resiliency of the human spirit is there in every step Nerina takes, whether in the alleys of Venice, the frozen wilderness of the Adirondacks or the spiral staircases of Montreal, and it is well worth accompanying this spirited character as she explores whatever possibilities await her.
Sonia Saikaley’s second poetry collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, will be published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street, which was awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada. In the past, she worked as an English teacher in Japan and briefly wandered the alleys of Venice. She will be reading from her novella The Lebanese Dishwasher on Thursday, June 9, 2016 at Octopus Books, 251 Bank Street, Ottawa, 7 pm.