Audrey Thomas Thomas, Audrey (Vol. 7) - Essay

Thomas, Audrey (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas, Audrey 1935–

Ms Thomas, a novelist and short story writer, was born in the United States and now lives in Canada. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Women alone can fully judge Audrey Thomas's accuracy [in Mrs. Blood] in conveying physical processes, the nuances of mood created by body chemistry, the peculiar fluctuations of shame and pride. When Brian Moore attempted sympathetic identification with menstrual blues, he showed that, with the best will in the world, he was emphatically not and never could be Mary Dunne. Mrs. Blood, by contrast, gives us woman from the inside.

If the prospect unnerves, take comfort in the fact that Audrey Thomas is also a perceptive observer of the world around her and that her novel builds a convincing Ghanaian setting, especially rich in sounds and smells. There is a sizeable cast of minor characters, present and past, and they are sharply individualized. But the glory of the book is its prose. Though the stream of consciousness method is susceptible to pretentiousness, Audrey Thomas handles it masterfully, so that the near-Joycean passages, the quotations and the language rituals do not jar with a clear narrative style and authentic dialogue.

I have not mentioned that this is Audrey Thomas's first novel because there is nothing in it to excuse on the grounds of inexperience, no need to patronize or exaggerate. I found faults in it, certainly, in the overloading of literary reference at times and in a few memories that were never unjumbled. But Mrs. Blood is accomplished writing; it does not bear the marks of a first novel and it must surely not be Audrey Thomas's last. (p. 99)

Joan Caldwell, "From the Inside," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1971, pp. 98-9.

Audrey Thomas' first book, a collection of stories called Ten Green Bottles, was nearly altogether conventional. Since that time her writing has moved through transformations that have given less due to the narrative necessity, and more to the con-frontation of reader with text. Blown Figures is, finally, an explosion. When you open the boards, the pages should tumble out and blow about your shape. (p. 86)

The book is full of puns, poetry's principal antagonist to the serial narrative. (p. 87)

The book, one learns, is organized more around images than along lines of narrative. The question is, are they telling images? Sometimes they appear to be superfluous and gratuitous. I was suspecting that Thomas laid in so many isolated snippets because she wanted to use as much disparate material from her notebook as possible. But there is no doubt that a week after reading the book, I remember it as a story, I have digested it as I do any novel, no matter how presented. I remember the effect of the many images of eggs, of blindness and one-eye, of blood, menstrual and other. Generally, I admire the refusal by Thomas to allow narrative flow, that attempt at capturing illusion. But the non-conventional keeps shifting its approach, desperately, one guesses, and that is a bother. (pp. 88-9)

Thomas isn't fooling or fooling around. She has entered where lots of Canadian "experimental" fiction writers have not had the nerve to go lately, into the life-or-madness care of real risk. I have the feeling that if this book had not been taken over by imagery and the non-linear, the pen might have been taken away from her for ever. (p. 89)

George Bowering, "The Site of Blood," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1975, pp. 86-90.

[In "Blown Figures"] Audrey Thomas approaches the height of her powers as a spinner of prose, a teller of surprising and engaging tales. With each of her books, the reader feels that the next will not only be better but different in some unimaginable way. "Blown Figures" is unlike any of its predecessors in technique, at any rate.

The book returns to territory familiar to readers of "Mrs. Blood" and "Songs My Mother Taught Me," and like these it is a self-contained unit. The heroine again is Isobel, who lost her unborn child in Africa in "Mrs. Blood" and whose hideous childhood is described in "Songs My Mother Taught Me." In "Blown Figures," Isobel returns to Africa alone, leaving her husband Jason and her two children behind, searching for the child she has lost—she's obsessed with her failure to find out what was done with the child's body—but searching also for expiation….

The title is evocative. "Blown" suggests blown glass, explosions, the winds of Dante's Inferno with its wandering souls, inflation, or exhaustion, and, as Miss Thomas is a lover of puns and her heroine Isobel worries about the hidden meanings of words, all these connotations are probably intended. "Blown Figures" is composed of fragments and contrasting textures: passages of narrative, flashbacks, fantasies, scraps from what may or may not be Isobel's notebook or the narrator's (bits of comic strips, quotations, pensées, dreams, African myths, ads from African newspapers; there are, perhaps, a few too many of these)…. The central character is multiple—"This curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people," the notebook quotes from "Alice in Wonderland"—and Isobel roams through Africa (in the third person), interrupted, interpreted and possibly created by a voice calling itself "I," who in turn addresses a shadowy woman called "Miss Miller" (governess, teacher, keeper, superego?). The "I" feels sorry for Isobel at times; she also hates her, is contemptuous of her and threatens to destroy her.

In hands less skillful than Miss Thomas's such devices could spell tedious experimentation for its own sake, self-indulgence or chaos. But she is enormously skillful, and instead of being a defeating pile of confusions "Blown Figures" is amazingly easy to read. It leads the reader from clue to clue like a detective story, though it lacks a comforting resolution; and it fascinates, like Africa itself, by its richness and mystery. Miss Thomas has a faultless ear for dialogue, for how people sound, even Dutchmen speaking English or Africans speaking French. And she has a camera eye for physical detail, so that the lands through which Isobel wanders on her quest shimmer on the page like mirages or hallucinations, sharp and charged with nameless fear. Which perhaps they are, for Isobel is haunted…. A haunted person is one for whom the past is more real than the present, and this is certainly true of Isobel….

On one level, "Blown Figures" is about Isobel's attempts at exorcism. On another it is about the exorcism of Isobel herself. Isobel must be taken to the end of her journey, her nightmare, so that the narrator can finally somehow get rid of her, return to the present, stop creating her. Isobel is haunted but she is also a pathetic and irritating ghost, fixed in time and repeating herself endlessly. "'Isobel doesn't live,' said her husband Jason to a friend, 'she exits.' He had meant to say 'exists.'" "How to rescue Isobel… without becoming oneself an Isobel," muses the narrator. Perhaps "Blown Figures" is her answer. (p. 8)

Margaret Atwood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1976.