Fiction Review by Kait Pinder

Theresa Kishkan, The Weight of the Heart (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2021).
Paperbound, 112 pp., $15.95.

The Weight of the Heart by Theresa KishkanEthel Wilson’s 1947 novella Hetty Dorval begins with Frankie Burnaby reflecting on the meeting of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers in Lytton, British Columbia. Frankie remembers “the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser.” Frankie sees the rivers’ union as “a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before” (quoted in Kishkan). In Wilson’s description the rivers are alive and opposed; one’s dance is overcome by the other’s moodiness. Although the Fraser absorbs the Thompson, taking over its beautiful colour and making its presence imperceptible within the larger river, from Frankie’s vantage point she can see both the moment of distinction and of union; she knows, then, that the muddy Fraser is not one thing but two, that it is animated and made greater by a presence that can only be perceived if you know where to go to see it.

Theresa Kishkan’s poetic novella The Weight of the Heart follows a map of interior British Columbia written in the fiction of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson and inflected by the narrator’s mourning of her brother. Set in the 1970s, the narrator is a graduate student writing her thesis on feminist literary geographies, but her more urgent task is to visit the place (near Frankie’s Lytton) where her brother, James, drowned. Like the two rivers in Wilson’s description, the narrator’s twin tasks— retracing the last days of her brother’s life and researching her thesis—merge into one. The union of the rivers also reflects the narrator’s working through her grief and her discovery of a new relationship with her brother. As the Fraser absorbs the Thompson, carrying within its mournful appearance the smaller river’s energy and beauty, so too the narrator recovers by coming to carry with her the spirit of her double and opposite, the brother she has lost.

Thus, the narrator’s own map of the interior is created not to construct
borders or to find the quickest route between a starting point and a destination, but as a “literary text of its own.” Sensitive to the particularities of a place that do not appear in the grids and legends of its settler‐colonial maps—its stories and animals, the feel of the air as the sun shifts in the sky––the narrator uses maps as mnemonics of embodied experience “to remind me of how my body responded to the hills, the low‐lying lakes, the sight of a hawk gliding along the shoulder, another on a fencepost, and wind, sunlight on my arm resting on the car‐door.… That was my map.” “Maps,” the narrator tells us during one of her theoretical meditations, “are dynamic systems” that represent through their symbols not the solidity of the terrain but its changefulness. Against a masculine and imperial cartography, the narrator
sees her study as a recuperation of feminist and literary knowledge. In Wilson’s and Watson’s novels she finds “[a] feminine cartography, influenced by the body’s responses to landforms and fauna.”

Kishkan’s striking engagement with Wilson’s Hetty Dorval and Swamp Angel (1954) and Watson’s The Double Hook (1959) makes this beautiful meditation on mourning and landscape also a work of creative literary criticism. The novella exemplifies its own theory of feminine cartography. In the pine forests where Swamp Angel’s Maggie Lloyd escapes an abusive husband and finds a new life, the narrator is consoled by “the ordinariness of birds and pines” that overcome “the sorrow of life without … James.” Here, the map carries multiple memories, literary, affective, and familial. To mark the resonances of the location, the narrator “note[s] the date, the location, and dr[aws] a little pine to remind [her] to look up the passage in Swamp Angel,” dropping in the process some pine resin on her map, a symbol of the map’s creative stickiness, the way it picks up and is changed by the stories of the land.

The Weight of the Heart also finds in Wilson’s and Watson’s writing an experimental style and a mode of consolation. Like Wilson’s independent protagonists, the narrator discovers her autonomy and grit in the landscape she travels. Watson’s spectral figures and interest in sacred rituals resound in the symbolic scenes of almost drowning in which the narrator is saved by her brother’s mysterious presence and in Kishkan’s invocation of Egyptian burial rites as a refrain throughout. Most obviously, the double hook of Watson’s title recurs in the dualities throughout the novel—in the two rivers, in twin foals (the colt unfortunately lost in birth) by a mare named Angel, and most clearly in the two siblings who are bound together in a landscape where life and death regularly meet. So, Kishkan and her narrator know where to look in Canadian fiction for a view of the British Columbian landscape that reveals these striking oppositions and their consoling unions. A unique and compelling creation in its own right, Kishkan’s poetic exploration of grief lives up to its literary precursors.


—Kait Pinder

As in The Malahat Review, 214, spring 2021