Sheila Ballantyne’s first novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen (1975), deals with liberation from the confining roles of wife and mother. Her second novel, Imaginary Crimes, deals with liberation from painful relationships with parents. In both books, the female protagonists are nearly overwhelmed by the past before they gain strength enough to move beyond it. In fact, each of Ballantyne’s books tells a different segment of the same story, the one which fascinates so many contemporary women writers: the story of coming to terms with the past, of becoming a creator, a “woman of my own. . . . alive, and separate, and moving on.” What distinguishes Ballantyne’s work from that of her colleagues is the archaeological quality of her characters’ examination of the past. In Norma Jean the Termite Queen, Ballantyne draws heavily on anthropology and ancient history to inform her protagonist’s struggle toward a new self-definition. In Imaginary Crimes, Ballantyne’s central character, Sonya Weiler, is an archaeologist of her own emotions, sifting through layers of experience to reach the complicated truth of her feelings toward her parents. Sonya’s “artifacts,” collected in albums and manila envelopes and cardboard boxes, are family pictures—data which are, by themselves, inconclusive, but which Sonya eventually assembles into a coherent and moving whole.
Sonya’s history begins in a tiny basement apartment in Seattle in the late 1930’s. Her mother, Valery, stays at home while her father, Ray, tries to earn a living by a variety of enterprises of dubious legality: restoring shiny suits to their original fuzziness, selling a knitting device called a pik-loom, and, eventually, conning investors to sink capital into fraudulent mining schemes. Sometimes Ray drinks too much. Valery’s heart’s desire is to have a home of her own. Deprived of that home by Ray’s ineptitude as a provider, she spends most of her time smoking Lucky Strikes, reading mystery novels, and fantasizing about movie stars. The couple’s second daughter, Greta, is born when Sonya is eight. Soon thereafter, Valery contracts breast cancer, but because she and Ray are Christian Scientists, they reject the surgery which would save her and decide instead to rely on God’s perfect love. The family moves to a rented dream house, with a bedroom for each daughter and a maple tree in the front yard; here Sonya witnesses her mother’s slow death from the untreated cancer. After Valery is gone, Sonya and Greta are cared for by a succession of nasty housekeepers, and Ray, sinking deeper and deeper into alcoholism, continues his unsuccessful efforts to make the deal of a lifetime. The family moves frequently, leaving behind treasured possessions; the housekeepers become more malevolent, Ray more unpredictable and abusive. Given these circumstances, Sonya’s adolescence is a humiliating ordeal. Her escape comes when she has a chance to go to college; she works her way through, graduates, gets a job, assumes responsibility for Greta, marries, and has two children. It is not until Ray’s death, shortly after the birth of her second child, that Sonya is forced to come to terms with her suppressed feelings toward her parents.
The problem of presenting these unhappy events, along with the changes in Sonya’s understanding of her feelings toward them, is a complex one, and Ballantyne’s solution is ingenious. She tells Sonya’s story in a series of vignettes, or narrative snapshots, using these “artifacts” to structure the novel. Some of the short narratives have titles, like the captions in a photograph album; in these titled sections, Sonya herself narrates, in the first person and, usually, in the past tense. Interspersed among these titled sections are untitled passages, more omniscient and expository in tone; most of these are written in the present tense, though they sometimes range into past and future. In the beginning, the apparently disconnected sections disorient the reader, but it is soon evident that the novel’s basic arrangement is chronological and that Ballantyne is shifting the angle of narration to achieve two effects. First, the changes in tense help to assert the impact of past events on Sonya’s present life. Second, Ballantyne’s narrative method allows the reader to understand the events of Sonya’s childhood when Sonya herself cannot, without sacrificing Sonya’s youthful impressions to her adult insights.
Even as a child, though, Sonya is not without perspective on her own story. From the outset, she emphasizes “firsts” and discoveries, almost as if she were a doting parent keeping a baby...
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