It’s not difficult to see why Fall On Your Knees was chosen for Oprah’s book club. It’s not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one (I’m not sorry I’ve read it, but I wouldn’t ever actually say to someone “hey, you should read this book”), and it has all the features that a big, serious, meaty family drama/epic is supposed to have. There’s a family without a lot of money in a remote village a long time ago, a great romance with disastrous consequences, a great talent nurtured and then prematurely snuffed, any number of lives lived in quiet desperation, a miraculous child, an abusive husband/father, some heartbreaking death. Very little humour, and some modern characters dressed up in period clothes so they can chafe against their fate of being born in a time before they could be accepted for who they are. It’s a very Canadian book.
Despite the laundry list of potential clichés I just went through above, none of that is really what keeps Fall On Your Knees from actually living up to all the attention it’s gotten. It’s just too damned long. That can be—and often is—a facile criticism, but in this case it’s accurate. Ann-Marie MacDonald gives us two or three exceptionally managed moments of extreme emotional tension (Kathleen’s death, Frances with Ginger in the cave all the way up to the shooting, and the bits in Kathleen’s diary when she discovers both jazz and Rose), but they are separated by an ocean of dreary greyness.
Kathleen’s death is probably the best illustration of this. Kathleen was the most fully realized character in the book, even though she appears in less than half of it. Her death scene was tragic, monstrous, bloody, and it struck the book like a hurricane. Killing off a character that strong so early in the book was bold, and exactly the sort of thing that could have made Fall On Your Knees great, but killing her doesn’t make her gone. Her memory lingers, of course, and her name becomes a kind of curse on the Piper household, but she reappears several times in flashbacks, letters, photographs, and diary entries. She’s so close to what happens in the rest of the book that the shock of her death becomes diffuse, absorbed by the rest of the book. As a result it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact on the reader (or this reader, anyway) that it could have, and even Frances’ antics can’t drag us out of the emotional dead zone that follows, the in-between feeling that I got from most of the book. Even when something was happening I felt like I was waiting for something else to happen.
It’s not just specific incidents like Kathleen’s death that get lost in what seems like interminable interstitial sections. So much of the first few chapters, James’ life before Materia, their courtship and the start of their lives together, falls out of memory, irrelevant and almost entirely unnecessary. All of what the story requires of the Mahmouds and the origins of the Piper family could have been condensed dramatically with no real harm done. Likewise the fighting and squabbling between Mercedes and Frances. I couldn’t help but feel that I was reading (and re-reading; Frances and Mercedes’ relationship was very repetitive) passages that added nothing. I don’t mind a sprawling story if I feel like it’s well-executed and tightly under control, but MacDonald didn’t always seem in control of the material. The more the lies and confusions and superstitions of the Piper family were compounded, the more it felt like overkill, making the same point again and again, avoiding giving the book a real centre. The end result—which I admit I saw coming—was an almost shaggy dog Big Reveal, but for a minor character rather than the reader. I felt cheated, not because the resolution was too clean (it wasn’t), but because it was too obvious.
As I said above, I wouldn’t go out of my way to hand this book to anyone, but I wouldn’t tell them to put it down, either. Fall On Your Knees was my second Canada Reads selection, and my sixth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is How Happy to Be, by Katrina Onstad.