Author Tags: Fiction, Poetry
Raised in Blind River, Ontario, Marguerite Pigeon of Vancouver received her MFA from the University of British Columbia in 2004. Her first book of poetry, Inventory (Anvil, 2009), contains 58 "object poems," arranged alphabetically, describing the mundane to the mysterious. She has been influenced by Francis Ponge, Gertrude Stein, and Zbigniew Herbert. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including subTerrain, The Capilano Review, Dandelion, Grain, and Taddle Creek.
Her first novel Open Pit (NeWest 2013) was derived from her experiences working with an indigenous organization on the Honduran-Salvadoran border. The story involves the kidnapping of Canadian human rights activists who are, ironically, protesting against the practices of a Canadian-owned open pit gold mining operation. Their kidnapper is a former revolutionary fighter. [See Review]
Some Extremely Boring Drives is also reviewed below.
Inventory (Anvil, 2009) - poetry
Open Pit (NeWest, 2013) $19.95 978-1-927063-32-3 - fiction
Some Extremely Boring Drives (NeWest 2014) $19.95 978-1-927063-75-0
Open Pit by Marguerite Pigeon, (NeWest Press $19.95)
from BC BookWorld
by Cherie Thiessen
There’s no joy in sleeping in flea-ridden old
shacks, or outdoors on plastic tarps, in the humid, bug-infested jungles of El Salvador.
No, this is definitely not what Danielle Byrd, aged 50, volunteered for when she left Toronto to lead a small group of Canadian human rights activists.
She and her companions were on their way to meet the charismatic Marta Ramos, a co-founder of the Salvadoran Committee for the Environment, hoping to help locals confront NorthOre, a Canadian-owned open pit gold mine poisoning a nearby river, filling the air with dust, and shaking the earth with repeated explosions.
One minute the Canadian do-gooders were on a bus to Morazán, trying to save the world; the next minute a corrupt driver had stopped their vehicle at a sugar cane juice stall and they were all kidnapped at gunpoint—and trying to save themselves.
But it’s not simple. They are being held hostage by the good guys. Led by Pepe and his good friend and cousin, Cristóbal; along with Cristóbal’s rebellious wife, Rita, and her younger sister, Delmi; Danielle’s captors are not after ransom money.
Instead they want the remains of Pepe’s family to be exhumed from the mine site and they want operations at NorthOre’s open pit gold mine to be suspended.
That’s the set-up for Marguerite Pigeon’s first novel, Open Pit.
There’s no question that Pigeon knows of what she writes, and she cares deeply about human rights and complicated environmental issues, but that in itself won’t guarantee a good novel. Fortunately, Open Pit is not just about good guys and bad guys. Danielle discovers that the inter-personal politics within her own party of kidnap victims—sexy young Tina, religious Martin, cantankerous Pierre, and the gentle Antoine—can be as troublesome as coping with their living conditions and comprehending their Spanish-speaking captors.
Back at home in Toronto, Danielle’s daughter, Aida, learns of her mother’s capture but doesn’t automatically rise to the occasion. Theirs has been a troubled relationship; Aida is wary of her mother and isn’t close to her. As a young mother, Danielle was too restless and young to care for a dependent so Aida was left in the care of her grandparents much of the time.
Nonetheless, Aida decides she must join the other hostages’ family members in El Salvador, awaiting the outcome of the hostage taking. First, she’ll attend a vigil and demonstration in Toronto against NorthOre organized by her mother’s close friend, Neela, who would have been the human rights activists’ leader swatting bugs in the jungle and fearing for her life had not Danielle decided at the last moment that she wanted to revisit El Salvador after a decades-long absence.
While staying at her mother’s home in Toronto, Aida reads her mother’s twenty-year-old letters that were sent to Neela. These letters were written when Danielle was a young, idealistic university student, eager to report the injustices she witnessed in El Salvador during the country’s bloody civil war (1979-1992).
During that civil war, Danielle had traveled and lived with a guerrilla faction. The letters won’t necessarily heal their mother-daughter rift but Aida realizes they hold clues as to who Aida’s father might be, and why Danielle chose to live such an unconventional life.
Within days, Aida finds herself doing very uncharacteristic things: abandoning the final work term placement she’s been assigned to complete her M.B.A. degree and spending money for plane fare that she was saving for her honeymoon in Europe—behaving the way her mother might behave.
From the letters, Danielle becomes curious about the former guerrilla leader Carlos who is now a Democratic Alliance candidate. Is he on the side of the environmentalists? Or is he in league with Mitchell Wall, the NorthOre mine owner from Vancouver?
Will Carlos help to liberate the hostages? or does he want them dead?
Constantly shifting scenes from Toronto to San Salvador and the jungle of Morazán province gives Open Pit a filmic quality, arguably at the expense of characterization. The reader may wind up feeling dizzy, like riding a rickety chicken bus, travelling but without experiencing, a bit dazed.
But Open Pit has the saving grace of being about something--the difficulties of indigenous people who must confront the combined power of their own governments in league with Canadian mining companies.
Set in 2005, the story is all too credible for anyone who read the review of Imperial Canada Inc., an exposé about the practices of Canadian mining companies abroad, in the Spring issue of this paper.
It’s all the more believable because Marguerite Pigeon herself lived for several months near the Honduran-Salvadoran border in 2001, protecting a local indigenous organization by witnessing their civil rights demonstrations as a foreign observer.
[Cherie Thiessen reviews fiction from Pender Island.]
Some Extremely Boring Drives
Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear by Julia Leggett, (Mother Tongue $19.94) 978-1-896949-39-0
& Some Extremely Boring Drives by Marguerite Pigeon (NeWest $19.95) 978-1-927063-75-0
Here Caroline Woodward reviews debut short story collections from two graduates of UBC’s Creative Writing program, both of whom set their stories in locales around the world.
In her elegantly produced collection of eight stories, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear (Mother Tongue $19.95), Julia Leggett reveals what it’s like to be female in one’s early twenties in this century.
In Thin, an obese young office worker buys herbal diet pills, having thoroughly absorbed the relentless North American repugnance for overweight people. She astounds herself, and confuses her trim, controlling BFF by shedding dozens of pounds... during one shift at work. In this deadpan, surrealist story we are quickly immersed in the savagery of office power politics and the nasty truth about some female friendships. Each sentence sings, each word is carefully considered, polished and put in exactly the right place.
Perhaps Leggett’s greatest gift is her ability to hook the reader with a few comfortable assumptions and then to give the tale a sly and devastating twist. For In Disguise, we follow a resolutely passive woman to Italy where she shocks herself by sidling away from her husband and his attentive co-worker to follow a handsome Italian onto a train. Along with the protagonist, the reader is tempted into making assumptions only to have them slither sideways. Will a brush with menace have adverse effects? Or could it be what is needed to snap her into vibrancy?
The only story which did not quite grip me was Snow Bunny, which deals with a middle-aged Canadian woman on a tropical holiday. For someone who is well-travelled and beyond middle age, it held no twists or new revelations.
The story that shines brightest among all the gleaming stories is the title story, Gone South, told as letters to, most likely, a childhood friend. Here Leggett’s wonderfully dry sense of humour leavens gut-wrenching pathos. The protagonist begins by letting her friend know that she has melanoma and that she is in for a battle royal. “Please still send me all your news,” she writes. “As difficult as it is to hear about other people’s lives, I still want real relationships.”
The letters reveal detailed drug and surgical treatments, her bodily response to them, her relationship with her stalwart gem of a husband, her loathing of needles and the joy in being outside during a remission, rid of tumours. “They can’t keep chopping them out, or there’ll be nothing left of me,” she writes. “I’ll be a human colander.”
Leggett’s characters run the gamut from dreamy drifters to bossy boots (Lena Reynolds Gets Divorced) to smarty pants (Versus Heart) to vulnerable victims about to break free (One More Goodbye). No matter whether the story has taken us for a walk on the surreal side or if it whacks us in the heart via high realism, up close and extremely mortal, Leggett’s writing cracks and sparkles.
Wise beyond her years at 33, Leggett, also a poet, grew up in Zimbabwe and is currently studying for her Masters in Counselling Psychology. In her acknowledgements, Leggett thanks her “fellow melanoma warriors.”
My only difficulty with Marguerite Pigeon’s dazzling collection of fourteen stories is the title, Some Extremely Boring Drives (NeWest $19.95). Yes, yes, it’s hipster-ironic, arch, provocative, but it’s likely do this book a disservice when it’s crammed spine out onto bookstore shelves.
Conversely the stories inside all have short, bristling, interesting titles like Endurance, Fiddle, Run or The Mermaid Sings which would entice most prospective readers to reach out for it.
Pigeon’s characters are movers and shakers all, nary a chaise lounge habitué watching the world go by in the lot. Endurance begins the book, about an extreme, cross-country marathon in the Yukon. The riveting action is so visceral that one is practically shivering, sweating and panting by the end of it.
Then we’re off to a hair salon where a cancer survivor is conversing with her hairdresser en route to a first night out to enjoy music and dancing and life among the living. Pigeon’s ability to push and pull the reader into her high-energy orbit is a treat. Her pacing and language never lose momentum or tension.
In Slag, rough-housing between two teens escalates when the young woman is punched by her older and larger boyfriend. We fear for her future in Sudbury where she lives with her mother and her mother’s live-in gangster partner who is also the uncle of her abusive boyfriend. I cheered as she made her escape on the ’Hound heading to Toronto. But Pigeon does not indulge anyone with tidy endings.
In Catch, we enter the creepy night-time world of two men who catch feral cats for unspecified medical purposes. The dialogue is especially unnerving and powerful. “Always a step ahead,” as Gerald put it. “Like Eichmann in Argentina.” Gerald is the kind of guy who enjoys this work far too much. And Roger knows he needs to make an exit before the job catches and disposes of his own humanity on a daily basis.
Marguerite Pigeon’s training, productivity and experience as a journalist comes to the fore as we scramble over the rocks of Newfoundland in Fiddle. What to do with a reluctant, once-celebrated, now-disgraced fiddle player who wants to take the cameraman and the journalist out in his boat?
We are taken to the streets of Mexico in That Obscure Desire and to Spain in Torera, where twists and turns and a sly sense of humour abound. Here’s our intrepid traveller on the beach in Spain: “Sheri is quite tipsy and has some trouble on the lava-like rocks. She generally embraces her drinking, but the librarian in her doesn’t approve of the attendant loss of focus.”
Now that the reader is well and truly hooked on the stories—all gritty realism interspersed with heart-aches and belly laughs in seemingly effortless, glimmering prose—along comes Makeover to overturn expectations. Clue: a doppelganger is involved, or possibly a twin or maybe even a love-child on the loose.
The notion of shifting identities comes to the fore in the next story, Run, as well as Backup, where a singer chooses to hang back and take a supporting role until the day she messes with the unwritten rules. Another singer in another story, The Mermaid Sings, a Joni Mitchell tribute act, takes to the stage in a blonde wig, playing small bars across the prairies. This one would make a brilliant theatre piece or film.
Marguerite Pigeon is also the author of the Gerald Lampert Award-nominated book of poetry, Inventory (Anvil 2009) and a novel, Open Pit (NeWest 2013) that was reviewed in B.C. BookWorld. Her range of subjects and characters in Boring Drives, and her soaring imagination throughout, is truly impressive. I now look forward to reading her previous books.
Caroline Woodward is the author of Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (2010) and The Village of Many Hats (2012), both from Oolichan Books.