The fact that Ann Charney is one of the most overlooked writers in Canada becomes more apparent with each new book. Defiance in their eyes, her collection of award-winning non-fiction from her work with Maclean’s and Saturday Night magazine, offered a penetrating look at Quebec culture from the margins. Her first novel, Dobryd, was an autobiographical work that opened when she and her mother were liberated by the Red Army from the Polish hayloft where they had hidden from the Nazis for more than two years. Dobryd chronicled her remarkable childhood in the chaos of post-war Europe. It was recognized as a tour de force by critics but it did not find the size of public in Canada that it deserved. It was followed by two more masterful novels, Rousseau’s Garden and Distantly Related to Freud that treat the immigrant and expatriate experience.
Her latest novel, Life Class, is in a sense a thematic intertwining of the previous three. It follows the friendship of two women who are generations and worlds apart but who both came of age in the time of war and devastation. They also share a similar approach to life: facing it head-on and refusing to be victims of the dark shadows of their pasts. In the case of Helena, she has lived 50 years in Venice after surviving the horrors of World War 2. Her young friend Nerina is a recent arrival, an illegal fleeing the ruins of Sarajevo. Helena helps the young woman find her way in a trajectory that takes her from Venice to New York to Montreal, cities that Helena also has connections to. The book follows Nerina’s scramble to meet her financial needs and to find love and pleasure in the world; and we track her largely through her own personal moral choices. What emerges is a compelling portrait of someone who moves resolutely toward a future powered only by that magically regenerating fuel of human hope.
What the book avoids, and pointedly so, is the type of melodrama that most writers would build into this type of fiction. Charney, a very intellectual writer, refuses to submerge the reader in an emotional hot tub and instead affirms the cool indifference of life and demonstrates our need not to bemoan it or grieve for it but, finally, to make something of it. The title, Life Class refers to the artist modeling job Nerina takes to make ends meet, but it also works in its larger meaning. What Charney gives the reader in Life Class is a rarity in fiction, particularly Canadian fiction: a sense of life as it is actually lived.
Peter McFarlane is a Montreal-based writer.