Thomas, Audrey (Vol. 13)
Thomas, Audrey 1935–
An American-born Canadian novelist and short story writer, Thomas has created psychologically complex feminine characters who have many biographical parallels with the author herself. Her narratives are kaleidoscopic and nonlinear but most critics agree that they maintain an artistic cohesiveness. Her latest novel is Blown Figures. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
Audrey Thomas has made her bondage as daughter into an entire book [Songs My Mother Taught Me]. It is justifiable to describe it as Thomas' bondage, not that of a character: the heroine is called Isobel Cleary, but [the biographical details connect]…. (p. 46)
Warne, Isobel's father, an ardent Mason, a schoolteacher who puts on slang to gab with gas station attendants and the sellers of bait for the trout in his father-in-law's lake, is too improvident to look after his family without slipped twenties from his sister and an inherited house.
But it's more than Warne's improvidence that makes Clara Cleary, Isobel's mother, a screaming hysteric, a whiner, a fat eater of chocolates and reader of ladies' magazines on her bed. Clara depends on appearances…. Nonetheless, appearances don't retrieve for Clara the status she thinks she has lost in marriage with Warne….
Clara despises Warne as a man, hints at unmentionable things he does in his handkerchiefs, says that Masons are all Mama's boys and perverts. Growing up between the two, the inadequate man and the compulsive angry woman—"Isobel, you're cold, your heart's a stone"—Isobel longs for love. What she finds, like so many of Atwood's women in fiction and poetry,… is sex….
Thomas pulls back from a clear-cut message. Isobel is high on pain killers when she loses her virginity, and her final story, except for a summary reference to Alice and madness, is a sweet little memory of Harry [her grandfather]. It's as if she were trying to impose the shape of the conventional memoir over experience which proves that sex is the most important thing in life. Perhaps she looked for a new form because sex supreme was the message of two of her previous books…. She needn't have looked for a new form. A wiser, better balanced book would have come simply from measuring Clara's and Warne's accountability—the title points to Clara; daughters typically expect less from their fathers—to the one great good she found in life. (p. 47)
Anne Montagnes, "The Bondage of the Daughter," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Night), May, 1974, pp. 46-7.
Songs My Mother Taught Me takes its title from a sentimental Victorian drawing room ballad. This seems appropriate for a portrait of a battered but charming adolescent girl who spends a great deal of time wallowing in selfish self-pity. There is, however, a courageousness about Isobel Cleary which engages the reader, in spite of the literary and nostalgic paraphernalia that surrounds her.
Occasionally one encounters a talented and evocative writer who does not trust her own talent. Audrey Thomas's fourth work is a novel marked by this kind of doubt. In a sense the novel is a regression for Mrs. Thomas. Each of her books flirts with the trendy, with the literary cliché. But in the earlier books the use of Dante, Lewis Carroll, John Fowles, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Borges, is integrated into the atmospheric conditions which prevail in the mind of the narrator. In Songs My Mother Taught Me an unacknowledged and inappropriate quotation from Yeats' Lapis Lazuli initiates the reader into the novel's two parts: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The novel neither portrays a journey from Innocence to Experience nor shows, as did Blake, two contrary states—unless a summer retreat in the mountains and a suburban madhouse be acceptable substitutes for interior landscapes.
Ostensibly the novel is a bildungsroman charting Isobel's growth to womanhood. Since Isobel herself remains fixed, the...
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Stories written by Audrey Thomas tell about things happening to one, & the condition of that one, a person very much alone in the world. She is a child alone in an ugly & baffling world of adults, she is a North American woman alone in a bungalow in West Africa or in a museum in Mexico, she is a virgin far from home, bare naked in a college dorm on the North Sea. She is usually trapt alone in the self, resentful or fearful of failing at her role somewhere in society, an identity thrust at her out of the dark. If anything may be said to be Audrey Thomas' consistent theme, it is private fear. For Thomas it is in that context that events happen to the point-of-view character….
In her writing Audrey Thomas has proceeded from an early portrayal thru psychological realism of her Alice [in Wonderland] character in herself baffled & angered by the outside world & its failure to accommodate her inside world, to either (1) a fiction that puts the reader in Alice's position (see Blown Figures), or (2) stories in which the point-of-view character gains a kind of strength by observing that other people too have their confusion, desperation & failures (see 'A Monday Dream at Alameda Park' or 'Initram'). (p. 29)
Audrey Thomas has publisht around twenty stories & I dont believe that she has ever publisht one that did not contain a discussion of private fears. The first two stories of Ten Green Bottles … cut time athwart as academy short stories are supposed to do, detailing the thoughts of a woman during two events at which time stands still & proves itself: a miscarried childbirth, & the funeral of a college friend & secret lover….
['If One Green Bottle'] is presented as internal speech, between ellipses that represent birth contractions or catchings of breath, in one woman's present tense. No other characters arrive, save in memories recounted. We are privy to a free association of [the archetypal character] Isobel's isolation & her learning to be alone in childhood, a favorite time for the thoughts of Thomas characters. (p. 30)
In 'Still Life with Flowers' she feels a sinking to minus-one, the body & absence of the loved one, of course, & her own loneness among these others attending the funeral. Her secret & her secret detachment make her feel like an uninvited guest at a party. The others in the car she rides to the graveyard are school fellows, but are in this present become strangers.
We are given childhood memories again, playing of 'Dead Man's Body,' that scary game in the dark, where one is the isolated victim, of looking at sleeping parents & fearing that for this time they arent there. So she is afraid to look at the dead youth's body, embarrassed at her own presumptiveness should she spy on him who can not look back or even know that she is watching. This seems to me to be clear projection, & a good counterpiece to the terror of personal disappearance in the first story.
Stylistically, this second story seems more interesting than the first. It starts in the third person, but persists in falling more & more frequently into the first person, back inside where the panic can be contained or at least concentrated. The disappearance into the first person seems well to augment the sense of embarrassment & timidity in the fearful young woman. (We will see that in the later stories, of women moving with some courage into the external world, a greater reliance on the third-person narrative, or first-person account of another person's actions.) A third-person narrative allows a reader to stand beside the narrator, sharing the view. A first-person narrative makes the reader the second person, & thus creates a distance desired by the character who would protect her uncertainties from the world. (pp. 30-1)
Audrey Thomas & Africa have, of course, become associated in the minds of readers, not only of the novels, but also of her stories. In [a] Capilano Review interview Thomas said that she likes to tell her stories of Americans or Canadians set down in an alien culture so that their problems will appear more starkly. In 'Xanadu,' for instance, we get a somewhat sarcastic portrait of a wife & mother who feels those positions threatened by the male African housekeeper who does the jobs more efficiently than she does. (pp. 31-2)
The same woman is sorely tried in her role-confidence in a story called 'One is One and all Alone,' a number that can be worse, & perversely better, than the zero after the last bottle. Again we see the white wife in Africa, trapt alone in the self, insecure about her role in the family. She is presented as neurotically afraid of the responsibility laid upon her when her husband goes up-country for several days. In this instance the fear is complicated by a particular kind of guilt. She sees that she inherited the habit of her timidity from her mother, who kept her 'always safe—and always afraid.' Now she fears also passing her habitual anxieties to her daughters. Even her fantasy of suicide is rejected because of her fear of shame (or embarrassment again) that would be laded onto her surviving family.
In the Thomas repertoire this story is perhaps the widest examination of the varieties of fear—we get a thunderstorm, a dentist's appointment, the embarrassment of falling to pieces in public—& a stream of symbols, such as ground-fogs, crackt sculptures, a safe Victorian doll's-house, & so on. But running thru the tests we become aware of another element that seems crucial. That is a hatred. The question is whether the hatred of her own fear will lead toward self-hatred or toward a strength that will defeat the neurosis. Correctly, this story does not so quickly...
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The ostensible subject matter of Audrey Thomas' book is familiar to her readers. Like many of her short stories, Blown Figures explores the blurred edges of sanity and madness; its protagonist Isobel, relives the experiences of Mrs. Blood, returning to Africa in search of the child she had miscarried there five years earlier. This journey into the past to face its horrors and bury its corpses is a familiar literary convention. But there is nothing reassuring about Thomas' handling of it just as there is nothing comforting in the landmarks of the story. Blown Figures, the title, refers as much to the effect on the reader as it does to the treatment of the subject and the structure of the book.
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