Reviews

Restlessness

Shannon Emmerson

On the low-budget European hostel circuit, hostels often double as libraries: backpackers leave books behind and other backpackers pick them up. The tradition encourages inspection of what backpackers are reading in trains, cafés and on buses, and one finds oneself playing guess-the-personality while sleuthing out literary tastes. A twenty-something man with the requisite backpack reads Swan Song, from the Harlequin “Hot Love” series on a Paris Metro: is this man a sexual romantic, did he have a Harlequin-addicted mother or sister, or is he just desperate for reading material? I myself toted Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and Anna Karenina in my pack before I caught on to the shedding and replenishing ethic and adopted an explore-everything stance. Then (hopeful in Barcelona) I moved to Joanna Trollope’s The Spanish Lover, and (desperate in Lisbon) gobbled Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne, and (drunk in Marbella) devoured Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. It was not always good reading, but it was enlightening reading. Aritha van Herk’s Restlessness (Red Deer College Press), though, ought to go missing from hostel shelves. It is a meditative novel which begins on a dramatic and Gothic note with a woman in a Calgary hotel room waiting for her “chosen assassin.” She is a courier by profession, a tired traveller, for whom travel is “uninhibited restlessness,” and she has determined that only death can quell her homesickness and still her feet. She has hunted for years for the perfect assassin, and has finally found him. Van Herk’s exploration of assisted suicide is fascinating and tender: we are aware that this woman’s killer could also be her lover. He draws her life story out of her while trying to understand her decision, and it is only when he fails that she changes her mind. Van Herk conveys her characters’ alternating feelings of tension and ease remarkably well: I found myself repeatedly taking sides and then questioning the side I had taken, not knowing whether to stay put or run, then not knowing which was which.

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