Themes and Meanings
The principal themes of the novel are existential choice and the artist’s quest for linguistic expression as a way of compensating for his isolation. David’s isolation appears at the opening of the novel as he stares out the kitchen window at the Nova Scotian landscape, registering every detail: “but it was as if another glass, beyond the glass of the window pane, covered everything, made touch between any two things impossible.” To counteract this loneliness, David finds meaning in language. As he climbs the mountain, he finds perfection in a synaesthetic apprehension of the beauty of his surroundings: “Everything seemed to be an aspect of something else. There seemed to be a thread of similarity running through the whole world. A shape could be like a sound; a feeling like a shape; a smell the shadow of a touch.... His senses seemed to run together,” even though his body is almost paralyzed.
Buckler uses similes excessively to convey David’s aesthetic means of possessing the external world and its interrelationships. “Then this new need to possess these things by describing them exactly in his mind. (The water trickled in the ruts like? . . . like? . . . anxiety. It was his, now.)” David’s similes are the literary and philosophical equivalents of mathematical equations:
And then the whole multiplicity of them clamoured to be known exactly, and so possessed. The never-quite-exactness of the twinning of thing and word for it was so tantalizing he was glad when his grandmother spoke. It was like a hand on his shoulder bringing him back from an unmanageable dream.
As the artist comes of age, the simile serves to render abstract ideas more concrete in their visual aspects; moreover, this “twinning” is reinforced by David’s own relationship to his twin sister Anna. Similarly, Ellen’s mat has both a landscape and a family pattern.
More than ever, lately, her hooking had become a kind of visiting. Memory could bring back the image of the others, but not the tune of them. These pieces of cloth which had lain sometime against their flesh could bring them right into the room.
Buckler’s fictional portrait captures a disappearing way of life in a secluded region.