Fiction Review by Steve Noyes

Joanna Lilley, Worry Stones (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2018). Paperbound, 284 pp., $18.95.

Worry StonesWorry Stones, Joanna Lilley’s first novel, begins brilliantly: Jenny Ross, a fine-arts scholar, is plucked away from the Canadian Arctic and back to Scotland. Her mother has had a stroke, forcing Jenny to leave her research and a budding relationship to deal with the complications of her family. Jenny and her sisters have not seen their parents for eight years; they are estranged because the bohemian parents have joined a New Age-ish cult, Gallachism.

This opening is powerfully full of dramatic potential and urgent questions. Jenny’s mother lies helpless in a hospital bed and the father is not with her. Have Jenny’s parents separated? Has the mother left the cult? Jenny’s sisters remain bitter and indifferent. Will they eventually help Jenny out? Further, Jenny finds a strange girl named Piyali at her mother’s bedside. Piyali, fully indoctrinated by the cult, has only the vaguest idea of how the world works and has to have banks, grocery stores, and maps explained to her. I was excited by the numerous questions this beginning set up and by the touching of these discrete worlds. Through Piyali, I sensed, Lilley now had ample opportunity to delve into the influence of the cult.

One of the novel’s successes is the character of Jenny. In managing her difficult family, in her anxiety to understand everyone’s viewpoint, sometimes to her own detriment, in her eventual courage in confronting her father—Jenny is fully realized, complex, and utterly believable. Lilley can write strong yet subtle scenes. A disturbing sex scene—a flashback—on a beach with Jenny and a fellow student is just creepy enough to nudge the reader towards thinking rape, and just ambiguous enough to encompass Jenny’s self-doubt, pain, confusion. Another success is Jenny’s eventual defiant confrontation with her father, orchestrated over pages. Having recently delved into the New Age myself, I appreciated Lilley’s skill with the father’s language, full of pseudo-scientific, Aquarian rhetoric and feebly wielded authority:

“Despite her failure to equalize, Moksha’s had a lot of training,” Jenny’s father continued. “She’s very responsive to our procedures…. Look, you’re very sensitive, Jenny. Your colours are strong, which means your perception levels are high. That’s unusual in a non-Gallachist….

After the promising start, however, Worry Stones falls into some typical traps of a first novel, and indeed of the assumptions of the realist novel. I was reminded of Milan Kundera on “automatic machinery” in The Art of the Novel (i.e., describe the setting, fill in background, introduce minor characters, etc.). One such assumption is that the maximum of backstory is needed to understand the present; after the setup, Worry Stones goes on an extensive journey through the family’s past to explain the rift between the parents and children. It is a somewhat convincing portrait of an upper-middle-class English family: the parents’ anxious moulding of the sisters’ futures, and their own provincial artistic activities, ring true (my own stay in England revealed that parental anxieties about class are alive and well). But it is also a structural misstep. The novel’s forward progress, its energeia, as John Gardner put it, is impeded for the sake of background that could have been handled more economically. In other words, Worry Stones is crying out for more judicious selection and editing.

The second, related flaw is the smotheringly limited third-person voice, over-Jenny’s-shoulder, with full access to Jenny’s interpretations, so that a dreadful show-tell, show-tell rhythm develops. This narration includes many irrelevancies (e.g., Jenny’s observations about the “sing-song” nature of Scottish speech, which Lilley then has to correct in a pc way, by having a Scottish character slag the English), silly intrusions of class-consciousness (did Jenny’s student lover/abuser turn out to be a lawyer or, horrors, an estate-agent?) and, more importantly, lapses of narrative intensity. At a crucial stage, when Jenny and her father approach the cult’s site in rural Scotland, the prose takes on the tone of tourist pamphlets:

The journey to Mallaig was beautiful, of course it was. At Loch Eil, she turned to look again at Ben Nevis. She tried to count the set of lochs called Neptune’s Staircase in the Caledonian Canal and obviously the Glenfinnan Viaduct was glorious. She loved seeing the little white church that featured—according to an American woman sitting behind them—in the film Local Hero.

This continuous stream-of-Jenny gets in the way of readers assessing for themselves the other characters, notably the sisters, the meaning of scenes, and limits readers’ ability to infer, to recognize nuance, to discover the novel for themselves. In Joanna Lilley’s next novel, I hope she will loosen up the point of view and operate more in a free indirect style, with a more skillful blurring of authority and character. As it stands, though, Worry Stones is a welcome and interesting debut.

—Steve Noyes

As in The Malahat Review, 207, Summer 2019