Review: Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright

Clara Callan by Richard B. Wright was a fantastic read for my recent trip to Whitehorse. I had been dying for some uninterrupted reading time for a while now, and it was the perfect length, (415 pages), to fly me to Vancouver, distract me through my 3 hour layover, then fly me to Whitehorse. No – I wasn’t finished when I got there, but I was close, and that’s because this Giller prize winner is hard to predict.

(I included the cover above that I wish I had for my book. Mine was unfortunately more dowdy.)

This story takes place in the thirties, and follows the lives of Clara and Nora Callan in small town Ontario and New York, respectively. Clara is a somewhat of a reserved school marm who teaches at the local two-room school house. She lives in her recently deceased father’s home and finds joy in occasionally playing the piano. Nora, on the other hand, has just moved to New York and begun a career as a radio actress. The two sisters’ lives couldn’t be more different. The story is told through a series of letters, much like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, if any of you have read it. (Those who haven’t, should. It is a quick read that’s extremely difficult to put down.) Throughout the book, I found myself enjoying what I was reading yet always wondering when the real story was going to begin; when something was going to happen that would engulf the lives of the two sisters and change them forever. It was only when I read the final pages of the novel that I realized that had happened, but in much less of a traditional way than I thought.

In addition to the story being told through letters, Clara also writes in her diary, which shows up intermittently between the letters and really helps us to get to know our narrator. Above all, Clara is honest. She wants to be more modern, more forward-thinking, yet she finds it difficult when she feels she has already been pigeon holed by her small town to fill a certain roll in her community of somewhat of an outcast. There’s a story arc part way through this book that makes me want to write this sentence in this review: “Then something terrible happened that changed Clara’s life forever…” but I can’t really do that. Though there is a seemingly life-changing event, I feel as though the book continued on at its homely pace. I don’t think of that as a bad thing, but I wouldn’t exactly describe Clara Callan as a page turner. I will say, however, that the language used is right out of the thirties in not only the vocabulary, but also the tone, and the sensibility of women towards certain issues, which I not only noticed, but really appreciated.

No, this wasn’t the best book I’ve read so far on my Canada Reads top 40 list, but that doesn’t make it any less special. As they say in the Wizard of Oz, Clara Callan is “a horse of a different colour.” I was reading and reading and waiting for the real story to start and when it never did, I realized, as I did about Galore, that the main story isn’t about something happening. It’s about people existing. I mean, when you think about it, isn’t it always? Stories exist to prove a point that certain people existed – had certain experiences. Clara Callan isn’t a Dan Brown novel, but rather a slice of life. Again, it was one of those books that once I turned the last page I thought, “Oh. Right. That’s totally it.” Wright made me take a step back and remember that stories didn’t need to be driven by unbelievable plot lines and intense action, but human experience. There are some really touching moments in Clara Callan that make it a must read for me. That and the fact that you can practically hear her sister Nora’s voice jump out of the pages. She’s a radio personality, and her writing is so consistent and so utterly different than her sisters’ that it provides a really fresh perspective when her character writes letters throughout the book.

Turndowns
So I only have one turndown in this book, which is odd as I when I finished I was sure I would have more. Here’s the wonderfully simplistic sentence that made me fold over the bottom corner of the page:

I had been reading a book slowly, for it is one of those books that you don’t want to end.

I know it’s a simple sentiment, but I’m sure we can all appreciate that feeling. Where you’re almost physically forcing yourself to put the book down so you don’t read anymore because even when you’re rereading something, there’s absolutely nothing like the feeling of reading it for the first time. I know that when I read Phillip Pullman’s novel, The Amber Spyglass years and years ago, I thought I would die when I closed the last page because I knew that at that point, there was nothing more I would ever experience about the characters.

Isn’t this why we read? Isn’t it truly unbelievable that an author can take us so completely into their world that we’re absolutely terrified for when it ceases to exist?

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. D I X O N says:

    One of my favorite books.

    Often, writers writing as the opposite gender are afforded a few points for the challenging task. You spot them a few before you read the first chapter because, afterall, writing an entire book of letters and diary entries as a woman cannot be an easy task when you are a male writer. Richard B. Wright doesn't require those points. He maintains a steady voice and creates compelling female characters.

    Great review Allegra.

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