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Man Booker Prize 2002

Longlist

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Critical Injuries
Joan Barfoot


Luke Robins-Grace

Joan Barfoot's eight previous novels all draw on a common theme of how ordinary people, mainly women, deal with events and circumstances beyond their control. The 55-year-old Canadian, a former journalist, has received continuous critical acclaim for work that clearly strikes a cord with her readership - her first novel won the Books in Canada award.

Critical Injuries is about redemption, forgiveness and overcoming the unforeseen. Isla is 49 and, after bringing up a drug dealing son and cult following daughter has married Lyle, a dependable widower with a country house on the edge of town. Roddy, with whose 'world' she 'collides' is 17 and anxious to leave life with his father and grandmother and head to the city for big adventures.

Roddy's plan to rob a convenience store (to raise the necessary cash for a great escape) goes drastically wrong when he accidentally shoots Isla, leaving her paralysed. With the premise set Barfoot then tells us how their respective searches for forgiveness and second chances, created by this 'ill-timed encounter', transpire. In these early stages the author creates an effective sense of tension - drip feeding us the back story to each character as events roll forwards - but it is a disappointment to realise that, ultimately, her novel is not going anywhere beyond the characters' individual battles with their newfound catastrophes.

Initially this is a turn-off but as Barfoot drags two characters through these cathartic experiences, forcing them to re-examine their past behaviours and confronting them some stark futures, she thankfully does so thoroughly and without great melodrama. Roddy's sense of regret at the stupid, accidental shooting is acutely felt without becoming breast beating or self-indulgent and his engagement with the de-humanising regimes of prison life is matter-of-fact and admirably composed.

Given her subject matter, it would have been easy for Barfoot to write as a therapist and, it is credit to her that she does not. Instead she concentrates her characters' efforts on what are quite individual journeys to redemption and revival. Roddy for example stoically refuses to engage with the prison counselling regime. Isla too struggles to accept her fate with as much grace and dignity as she can muster and, in the process brings closure to some troubling aspects of her offsprings' upbringing.

Refreshing as this approach is, considering the themes, much of the story does nonetheless take place within the confines of her main characters' headspace which can inevitably become a little claustrophobic. But to give Barfoot her dues, she does it well. There are some genuinely touching moments and some very astute insights as her characters react in extreme circumstance and emotion. Isla discovers unfamiliar freckles on her hand as her first husband shockingly reveals his grubby infidelities and Roddy is overcome by an intense calm as he lies in the jaws of a police dog awaiting inevitable arrest. She has been praised for putting people under the microscope and, it is well deserved.

Praise of her style is less well deserved. Barfoot is not afraid to use certain poetic and stylistic devices, but 'lyrical' often translates to disorienting streams of consciousness, and 'biting' can become cliché: '"Funny . . . how sorrow always seems more powerful than joy"' - gee, how original.

For those who appreciate this genre, Critical Injuries will have something to offer. We may however, doubt how broad her appeal can be. Past work shows that Barfoot's staple remains an ordinary woman's life faced with an extraordinary circumstance. Loved by publications such as the Canadian online Housemaker magazine and the Romantic Times book club she certainly has a strong following who, you can't help feeling, might do well to be brave and put something else on their autumn reading list.

 

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