In life one never has to betray oneself by doing things one knows are wrong.Christoph Kohler, Wanda by Barbara Lambert (Fish Gotta Swim, 2021), p. 138.
For this year’s Remembrance Day post, I’ve chosen a work that is not set in the trenches or the battlefield or a prisoner-of-war camp, but on the home front. We children of frugal parents have had glimpses into wartime rationing, and families whose young adult children have returned from war with physical or psychological scars know its lasting effects, but on the whole we in Canada tend to think of war as something that happens, happened, elsewhere. Yet war had immediate consequences in Canada. Thanks to the work of Joy Kogawa, most are familiar with the outrage of Japanese internment camps. But others were interned, too, during the Second World War: enemy aliens. In the novella, Wanda by Barbara Lambert (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2021), the threat of internment frames the story of the Kohler family, who fear being identified as enemy aliens. Their fear that the German father could be sent to an internment camp, and that the mother is “tarred” by this, causes each parent to have an emotional crisis at the precise moment that they should have been paying closer and kinder attention to their daughter.
Wanda opens with a granddaughter asking her grandmother Eva about a portrait of herself on the wall. And so we slide into the past, as Eva remembers her mother’s paintings, and from there the reader is taken into her childhood and the girl with whom she was friends for a brief time – Wanda, the war refugee. If her mother were not preoccupied with painting a portrait of the bank manager’s wife, Mrs Collins, and if her father were not so busy with the orchard and training to join the local militia, her parents might have deemed Wanda an inappropriate friend. You know the kid I mean, the one who, on hearing the words “not allowed,” insists that you go and do that thing immediately. And they do. The girls put themselves in harm’s way several times, but no harm comes to them. The harm originates with Eva, and she compounds that harm by blaming it on Wanda.
In “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” (The New Yorker, Dec. 27 2021), Parul Sehgal describes much of contemporary literature as presenting a character who behaves the way they do, usually badly, until the big reveal towards the end, in which we learn that they were a victim of trauma or abuse. Sehgal argues that such a plot looks backward (What happened to her) rather than forward (Will they or won’t they), and in so doing, flattens the narrative, and reduces a character to symptoms. As if she had anticipated Sehgal’s somewhat reductive critique, Barbara Lambert turned victimhood on its head in Wanda and in her novel, The Whirling Girl (Cormorant Books, 2012). Lambert’s work asks: what if the victim initiated whatever wrong was done to them, or, in the case of Wanda, betrayed a friend to cover up their supposed wrongdoing? What if the words of Eva’s father simply aren’t true and we do have to betray ourselves by doing something we know to be wrong?
In Lambert’s novel, The Whirling Girl, the reader sits uncomfortably with a character so morally compromised as to be unlikeable, the botanical artist Clare Livingston. Rather than limiting Clare to the trauma plot – we do find out what happened to her – Lambert’s narrative keeps us asking what Clare will do next.
The Whirling Girl is set in Cortona, Tuscany, where Clare has inherited a house from her uncle, Geoffrey Kane, which happens to be on a site of Etruscan archaeological interest. While there is much scrabbling around in dirt and stone in Tuscany, the most moving scene in the novel is set on an American farm, where a bank of clay collapses on Clare when she is a child. Her uncle shows up in time to rescue her. Interestingly, one of the pivotal moments in Wanda also involves clay, and what the two girls have fashioned from the clay, and from Wanda’s absence at the moment of Eva’s greatest need.
From the The Whirling Girl‘s opening, we understand that Clare’s modus operandi is to run away, as she does from the man who has stopped to help her – Gianpaulo, her future lover. Coming to her uncle’s house she is running away from a failed marriage and a reputation as a botanical explorer. She runs away from home, we learn, as a teen. As she eventually admits, she is living out the myth of Myrrah, “exiled to wander the earth as punishment for her unspeakable sin.” (p. 25) In fact, one of the chapters is called Adonis Flower, after the anemone red as the blood of Adonis. As if Clare herself were an archaeological dig, we learn layer by layer, chapter by chapter, why she has been running, and how difficult the Tuscan house will be for her as a place of redemption. In the end, she redeems herself by staying put, by truth-telling, and by accepting that we are all flawed.
One wishes that Clare could leap across the pages to deliver this message to the grandmother in Wanda, who is bent with her past betrayal. And that Clare could deliver the message that we are all flawed to those wounded by war, to those kept awake at night by the wrongs they have done in the name of war or for their own survival in a war-torn country. While Lambert is kinder to her characters in Wanda than in The Whirling Girl, we are left to understand that it is not time that has done the famous work of healing; rather, healing comes from the telling of the story.
Barbara Lambert lived in Cortona, Italy, where she and her husband rented a 500-year-old mill house while Lambert researched Etruscan archaeology. She also lived in Vancouver and the Okanagan valley. Her short story collection, A Message for Mr. Lazarus (Cormorant Books), won the 2000 Danuta Gleed Literary Award; the titular novella won The Malahat Review Novella Prize in 1996.
- Parul Sehgal, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot, Critic at Large, The New Yorker (online 27 Dec. 2021, in print 3&10 Jan. 2022).
- Wanda can be ordered by email directly from the publisher, Fish Gotta Swim.
- ABC Bookworld on Barbara Lambert’s life and work.
- Obituary for Barbara Lambert.
- Canadian Encyclopedia entry on internment of enemy aliens during both World Wars.
- Essays on “What have we learned from war?” from the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario’s exhibition Lest We Forget.
Thanks for this fine essay. I haven’t read Lambert’s work, but now I would like to.
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