Corey hits some rough ice

review of The Skating Pond by Deborah Joy Corey, publisher: Knopf Canada

by Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, February 9, 2003

The Skating Pond is the sophomore release from Canadian-born Deborah Joy Corey, winner of the W.H. Smith/Books In Canada First Novel award for her debut, Losing Eddie. Corey's flawed new book is the kind of thing for which Canadian writers are famous: rural stories with lots of winter, harsh but beautiful landscapes and personal loss. Corey is a dexterous wordsmith and each sentence reads like it was lovingly crafted, and her settings are described in luxurious detail.

Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth lives in a coastal community in rural Maine with her artist father and beautiful mother, Doreen. Elizabeth's beloved sister, Gwen, has been sent packing due to her unlucky preoccupation with older men. Her mother is an expert ice-skater who sustains a serious injury when, in the middle of a dazzling spin, an errant hockey puck from a nearby game strikes her. Horribly disfigured, Elizabeth's mother retreats into their house and disintegrates while her cold and hostile husband escapes into the arms of another woman. Eventually, Doreen succumbs to her injury, leaving Elizabeth, for all purposes, orphaned.

Elizabeth's father is not a villain in the usual sense but Corey subtly and skilfully paints him as a monster; a man who shoots the family dog for disobedience, casts out his promiscuous older daughter and abandons his disfigured wife and teenage daughter, eventually leaving her to fend for herself. It's Corey's finest turn and one wonders what kind of book this would be had he not disappeared after the first act.

The boy next door, Michael, who was the unfortunate shooter of the slapshot, checks up on Elizabeth nightly. While he becomes a shy, gentle suitor, she is instead drawn to Frederick, a much older, (and married) artist and architect. Frederick distracts Elizabeth from her loss and awakens her sexually but in the end turns cruel and, like her own artist father, abandons her. Even though she is laden with Frederick's child, Michael marries Elizabeth, and he and his family take her in, offering her the love and security one might believe would be Elizabeth's salvation. Still, she pines for her ex-lover and is a barely present wife and mother.

This implies something entirely unflattering (and hopefully, untrue), about women. It brings to mind the current reality TV show, The Bachelorette. Trista, in Las Vegas with five "marriage prospects," leaves Rob, the sincere, gentle, sweet man, in the casino and heads for her hotel room with the slimy, more dangerous Russell with his shiny gifts and snake-tongue kissing style. As much as women profess to want a nice guy, "reality" and fiction suggest otherwise.

Speaking of tongue kissing, The Skating Pond has some of the least erotic sex scenes one is likely to read. Elizabeth's pleasure is weighed down by images of shadows, the sea, flowers and anything else that can be described in flowery terms. Sex, as told by Corey, resembles a '60s psychedelic song lyric more than the intense carnal firestorm you would think she intended.

Often, Corey is perfect. Describing her mother's face, Elizabeth tell us, "The accident had stolen her expressions and the bright light didn't reflect, but lay flat on her face, making it two-dimensional and shadowed like a painting." Then Corey's imagery will be completely bewildering, as in "Actions and feelings may take the form of clouds, but they are not as easy to figure out." Other times, she is downright corny. Frederick at one point tells Elizabeth, "I'm glad you're happy, Elizabeth. A life is a terrible thing to waste."

By the halfway point, having waded through pages of over-analyzed scenes with the significance of every action amplified, the reader will suddenly notice that not much has actually happened. Worse, reading on, one discovers that the book's second half involves little more than Elizabeth attempting to come to terms with her life.

Turning the final page, a reader feels as if they had finished a well-written romance novel. For all of its virtues and in spite of Corey's talent, The Skating Pond is safe and predictable.

Copyright © 2003 CanWest Communications Corp.

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