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September 6, 2016
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 25, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
First up is Heyday by Marnie Woodrow, reviewed by Erin Della Mattia. Erin, the first of five 2016 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is a writer, researcher, and the managing editor of the online magazine Sewer Lid. Marnie Woodrow will be reading at the The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 25, at 1:30 – 2:00pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 11, 2016.
August 10th, 1909. Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park is consumed by flames. One girl, a ticket-taker, perishes in the flames. “Girls died every day. Not mine.”
Marnie Woodrow’s Heyday follows the burgeoning friendship and romance of two teen girls seeking fun and freedom in early-twentieth century Toronto. Bette, seventeen, comes from a decent, middle-class family from which, like many rebellious youths, she longs to escape. She finds her chance one summer day when an eccentric red-haired man hands her an advertisement for Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park. Once there, she is immediately intrigued by the Figure 8 rollercoaster, riding it again and again, scheming just to sneak over to the Islands without her parents’ knowledge.
Freddy, too, understands the joyful rush that only rollercoasters can bring. At eighteen, Freddy is an employee at Hanlan’s Point, having escaped her previous employers, the abusive farmers in Stratford. The two girls meet when they share a compartment on Bette’s very first rollercoaster ride – Freddy gripping Bette’s hand to calm her – and although they don’t know each other’s names, they make a promise to meet again. Thus begins their whirlwind summer, in which longings for amusement and intimacy lead into covert plans for escape from the restraints of conventional life.
Their story is contrasted with that of Joss, a modern-day photographer living on the Toronto Islands, trying to mourn the loss of her wife, Bianca. Very quickly it is made clear that Joss viewed their relationship as one of safety and convenience rather than passionate love, constantly comparing Bianca to earlier lovers. Yet Joss’s increasing alcohol dependency seems to betray different, and perhaps subconscious, emotions.
Her story is relayed very gradually, only building in tension when she arrives in New York, where, forgetting that there is no one to hear her message, she calls Bianca’s cell phone to tell her she has arrived safely. Joss’s strange mix of resentment of and duty towards Bianca is at once intriguing and confusing: while her trip to New York is largely fueled by a long-held desire which she had to subdue to suit Bianca, the reasons for Joss’s self-denial are never quite clear.
The writing does, at times, lack some boldness and specificity. It occasionally shies away from certain details, especially concerning Freddy’s physical and sexual abuse, which is described rather vaguely, making her perpetrator into a generic villain. For the reader, questions may arise about how Freddy actually understood these experiences and what kind of language she would have used to describe them: questions which, if answered, could have added further complexities to Freddy as a character. Bette’s character has similar issues, in that the lack of description of her physicality contributes to a misrepresentation of her teenage self, and she often seems to be five years younger than she is.
And yet, this gesture of withholding also avoids sensationalism. Even in its most intimate or most heartbreaking moments, Heyday does not render the reader into a gawker witnessing someone else’s trauma or pleasure. In an odd sense, Woodrow never oversteps the privacy of her characters. Just as Bette, Freddy, and Joss, have an implicit understanding of the need for secrecy, both for their relationships, their pasts, and their plans for the future, Woodrow crafts their stories with a respectful, light touch.
This is a novel almost entirely driven by relationships and the desires of its characters, most of whom – from the three protagonists to their supporting characters – are fantastically individualized and demand recognition. Much of the novel’s rollercoaster-esque emotional pull can be found in Bette and Freddy’s narratives, which offer active, forward-moving plots in contrast to the sustained melancholy of Joss’s more reactionary chapters.
This comparison of youthful frenzy to the steady decline and affective exhaustion of middle age is not an unfamiliar literary trope, but Woodrow does not simply reproduce a static treatment of it. Her protagonists, young and old, desire all the “thrills, spills and chills” that life has to offer, which become embodied in the enticing promises and irresistible festivities of amusement parks.
At first, Joss’s mirroring of Bette’s love of rollercoasters feels like too obvious a connection between the two narratives. This connection is deepened by the end, however, when Joss’s journey to Coney Island re-enacts the awe and joy of Bette’s first trip to Hanlan’s Point, complete with a young and nameless Freddy-like androgyne.
Simultaneously, and more subtly, Joss also lives out Freddy’s own yearnings for happiness and freedom that she always associated with Coney Island, which, for Joss, are tempered by the inevitable changes wrought by time. But, as Joss eventually discovers, there will always be space for dreams. Through the dualities that run across the three narrative threads of Heyday, Woodrow gradually reveal the shared, dreamy idealism of its characters, an idealism that, while often attributed to youthful naivety, becomes a harbinger of beautiful experiences and, in turn, beautiful art.
Erin Della Mattia is a writer, researcher, and an almost-graduate of Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity MA program. She also serves as the Managing Editor of the online journal of urban art and literature, Sewer Lid.
Nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2003, what is the name of Marnie Woodrow’s first novel?
Check out our website, and send the answer to firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered in a draw to win a signed copy of Heyday by Marnie Woodrow!
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.