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Book Note: Algoma

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By Dani Couture
Invisible Publishing, 2011

Reviewed by Katherine J. Barrett

Algoma begins when 12-year-old Leo disappears through the fractured ice of Quebec's Charles River, still clung to the side of a mangy black bear he'd been tracking. Leo's twin, Ferd, watches from a bridge. Leo is gone, Ferd knows, but Leo can't be dead. Twins cannot be twin-less.

The debut novel of Canadian poet, Dani Couture, follows Ferd, his mother Algoma and his father Gaetan, through the years after Leo's disappearance. The plot centers on Ferd's refusal to accept Leo's death, and his attempts to coax Leo back from the river by leaving notes in watery places -- the shower drain, the ditch, the outdoor hockey rink. Ferd writes on any scrap paper, including a "creamy wedding invitation" he'd stolen from his teacher's desk. Ferd crosses out the names of the bride and groom and starts, "Dear Leo...." He pictures his brother "sitting cross-legged at the bottom of the river, his hair slick with algae and spiked with twigs." Ferd is steadfast; he will not grieve.

The raw emotion of the novel stems from his mother, Algoma. The seventh daughter in her family, and the only one born without a twin, Algoma carries a bitterness throughout her life. (Algoma's mother hoped to set a world twin-bearing record; Algoma's birth made that impossible.) She watches her sisters function in pairs; and then she gives birth to Leo and Ferd. Named after a fleet of shipping tankers, Algoma struggles, at times heroically, to hold herself and her family afloat after Leo's death. At one point, she all but imprisons Gaetan and Ferd in their basement and subjects them to a family "camping" trip. She pitches tents, turns off the heat, removes the lightbulbs and insists on emergency rations of Manwich. After three days, she lets Gaetan and Ferd back upstairs, "Go upstairs. Everything is good. It's all good."

With recurring themes of twinning, nature and water, and Couture's graceful and distinctive voice, Algoma raises questions of companionship, family, fate and our place in the world. It's a moving read from a talented writer.

Three Questions for Dani Couture

Katherine J. Barrett: You've created a complex mother figure in Algoma. In many ways Algoma holds the "fleet" -- her family -- together, and yet throughout her life she feels alone, left out. Who or what provided your inspiration for Algoma, the mother?

Dani Couture: Algoma has an unlikely origin story. When I was a teenager, I read the business section of the newspaper, specifically articles about Algoma Steel (now Essar Steel Algoma), a steel company in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Over time, I began to anthropomorphize the steel mill: it was a woman. I thought and wrote about Algoma for 15 years before I began the novel, and by the time I started to write it, I knew her inside and out, and how she would react to most situations. Part of her personality also embodies the spirit of Mark Strand's poem, "Keeping Things Whole." So, to answer your question, Algoma, the mother, is one part steel mill, one part poem.

KJB: Your publisher, Invisible Publishing, has an unusual and admirable mandate: "We work exclusively with emerging and under-published authors to produce entertaining, affordable, print-based art." Was it difficult, artistically, for you to switch from poetry to write your first novel? Do you have advice for aspiring or first-time novelists?

DC: The switch wasn't difficult or something I really thought about. I was at a cottage up north one summer when I wrote the first pages of the novel. I hadn't planned on writing it. In fact, I hadn't planned to write fiction at all. But once it started to flow, I didn't stop it. A couple years and thousands of hours later, I found myself with a first draft. Even still, the transition felt sudden.

As for advice for aspiring novelists, I would suggest not taking too much stock in other people's advice on how to write. Do what works for you. For instance, Stacey May Fowles, author of Be Good and Fear of Fighting, tends to write most of her novels in concentrated periods of time, whereas I tend to write a little every day. There is no right, no wrong.

KJB: Algoma has received a lot of media attention. What's next for you?

DC: I'm currently working on a new novel -- a little every day.

Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.

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