Study Guide

Surfacing Quotes

  • Death

    It would take twenty or thirty men at least, strung out at intervals and walking straight through the forest, and even then they could miss him, dead or alive, accident or suicide or murder. (5.50)

    The narrator is mulling the condition in which she and the other searchers are likely to find her father. She's not super-optimistic that he's alive.

    I thought, I suppose I knew it from the beginning, I shouldn't have tried to find out, it's killed him. I had the proof now, indisputable, of sanity and therefore of death. Relief, grief, I must have felt one or the other. A blank, a disappointment: crazy people can come back, from wherever they go to take refuge, but dead people can't, they are prohibited. (12.26)

    Upon finding some weird drawings her father did of animal-human hybrid creatures, the narrator briefly thinks that he has gone mad—and so, he might still be alive. In this moment, she's realizing that her father was tracing local cave paintings. As a result, she has gone back to assuming he is dead.

    "Sometimes I think he'd like me to die," Anna said, "I have dreams about it." (14.53)

    Although it's not immediately apparent, David and Anna's dynamic takes on a distinctly nasty tone when we learn how much glee he takes in controlling Anna's looks and behavior (e.g., by making her feel like she has to wear makeup to avoid issues with him). Apparently, things are so bad that Anna even thinks he'd like her to die. The comment comes out of nowhere, but that doesn't make it any less sinister—on the contrary, it's more so.

    I didn't want there to be wars and death, I wanted them not to exist; only rabbits with their coloured egg houses, sun and moon orderly above the flat earth, summer always, I wanted everyone to be happy. But his pictures were more accurate, the weapons, the disintegrating soldiers: he was a realist, that protected him. He almost drowned once but he would never allow that to happen again, by the time he left he was ready. (15.41)

    Here, the narrator is thinking about her brother, who apparently had a bit of a violent streak. While the narrator was drawing pictures of bunnies and the moon, her brother was drawing soldiers and weapons—in short, she avoided thinking about or representing death, and he (having already confronted death as a child in a near-drowning accident) embraced it.

    The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human. In a way it was stupid to be more disturbed by a dead bird than by those other things, the wars and riots and the massacres in the newspapers. But for the wars and riots there was always an explanation, people wrote books about them saying why they happened: the death of the heron was causeless, undiluted. (15.38)

    Coming across a dead heron in the woods really upsets the narrator—she seems more traumatized by the needless brutality involved in killing that bird than she is by anything else (including her father's death). She suggests, of course, that she can deal with death when there's a point to it, but the notion of just killing something because really gets her upset.

    Whether it died willingly, consented, whether Christ died willingly, anything that suffers and dies instead of us is Christ; if they didn't kill birds and fish they would have killed us. The animals die that we may live, they are substitute people, hunters in the fall killing the deer, that is Christ also. (17.1)

    Now the narrator is musing that the human instinct to kill other humans is somehow sublimated or satisfied by killing animals. She attributes this instinct to the "Americans" who supposedly killed the heron.

    It was there but it wasn't a painting, it wasn't on the rock. It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead. (17.8)

    When the narrator is diving down in a lake near her father's cabin, she comes across this weird squid-like creature, which apparently is dead. We don't really have all the pieces of this vision's significance yet, but apparently the narrator found it pretty meaningful. With the mystery of the narrator's missing father, the novel set us up to expect the discovery of "a dead thing," but this isn't exactly what we thought was coming.

    I know when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn't let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air. It was there when I woke up, suspended in the air above me like a chalice, an evil grail and I thought, Whatever it is, part of myself or a separate creature, I killed it. It wasn't a child but it could have been one. I didn't allow it. (17.14)

    Now we get the full (or, at least, fuller) details of what the vision in the water meant for the narrator. Upon seeing this creature, she realizes she doesn't actually have a child (contrary to what she's been telling us all along); she had actually had an abortion rather than carrying her pregnancy to term. Here, she seems to believe she's seeing the fetus itself or some vision thereof.

    His hands descended, zipper sound, metal teeth on metal teeth, he was rising out of the fur husk, solid and heavy; but the cloth separated from him and I saw he was human, I didn't want him in me, sacrilege, he was one of the killers, the clay victims damaged and strewn behind him, and he hadn't seen, he didn't know about himself, his own capacity for death. (17.35)

    It appears that Joe is trying to initiate sexytimes with the narrator, but all she can see is a "killer" (his "clay victims" are the mutilated ceramic pots he makes for a living) who doesn't understand his "own capacity for death." It's an odd moment that's certainly up for interpretation, but one important takeaway is that she sees death and murderers everywhere, which definitely adds to the kind of sinister, mysterious feel of the novel.

    I'm crying finally, it's the first time, I watch myself doing it: I'm crouching down beside the lettuces, flowers finished now, gone to seed, my breath knots, my body tightens against it; the water fills my mouth, fish taste. But I'm not mourning, I'm accusing them, Why did you? They chose it, they had control over their death, they decided it was time to leave and they left, they set up this barrier. They didn't consider how I would feel, who would take care of me. I'm furious because they let it happen. (22.13)

    Toward the end of the novel, the narrator confronts her grief—and the truth that now both of her parents are gone (her mother had died of an illness some time before that). She's tripped up emotionally by the finality and separation that death brings with it.

  • Memory

    Nothing is the same, I don't know the way any more. (1.29)

    Coming back to the region where she grew up, the narrator sees a lot that is familiar… and a lot that is different. For example, the road she used to use to get home is blocked, which leaves her completely at a loss to figure out how to get there on her own.

    What I'm remembering are the visits our mother was obliged to pay Madame while our father was visiting Paul. (2.24)

    As the narrator moves through her old stomping grounds, memories of her childhood intrude and bleed into her observations. Here, she remembers her mother's awkward encounters with "Madame," Paul's wife, as she's having her own in the present day.

    But Madame doesn't mention it, she lifts another cube of sugar from the tray by her side and he intrudes, across from me, a coffee shop, not city but roadside, on the way to or from somewhere, some goal or encounter. (2.42)

    As the narrator is sitting there with Madame, suddenly she remembers sitting with some dude in a coffee shop (the time or exact place of this memory is unspecified). This is one of a handful of times the narrator refers to this dude (or rather memories of him) sneaking into her thoughts like a cat burglar. Memory is tricky that way, especially in this novel.

    Claude comes back with the beer and I say "Thank you" and glance up at him and his face dissolves and re-forms, he was about eight the last time I was here; he used to peddle worms in rusted tin cans to the fishermen down by the government dock. He's uneasy now, he can tell I recognize him. (3.18)

    Here, the narrator describes a kind of a film-like dissolve in her mind, by which Claude's adult face melts into his face as a child, which she suddenly remembers and recognizes. This device creates a sense that memories are floating around everywhere around this place, just waiting to seep into the narrator's consciousness.

    It was before I was born but I can remember it as clearly as if I saw it, and perhaps I did see it: I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother's stomach, like a frog in a jar. (3.34)

    Apparently even memories that aren't the narrator's can bleed into her consciousness. Although it's (probably?) not literally true that can remember seeing her brother's drowning from inside the womb, the image suggests the power of the past to be retained and remembered.

    We begin to climb and my husband catches up with me again, making one of the brief appearances, framed memories he specializes in: crystal clear image enclosed by a blank wall. (5.33)

    That husband dude is back again, essentially sprinting after the narrator and back into her consciousness. Hmm, we wonder why memories of him would be chasing her. Why would she be running from it?

    I have to behave as though it doesn't exist, because for me it can't, it was taken away from me, exported, deported. A section of my own life, sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh cancelled. Lapse, relapse, I have to forget. (5.44)

    The narrator has stated that she and her ex-husband had a baby, but she doesn't appear to be involved with "it"—in fact, she pretends to others (like Anna) that the child doesn't exist.

    There's no act I can perform except waiting; tomorrow Evans will ship us to the village, and after that we'll travel to the city and the present tense. (6.1)

    This sentence really highlights how much the narrator feels like being home is yanking her back into the past against her will. Before David makes the executive decision that they're all staying longer, she's really looking forward to getting back to the "present tense."

    I look around at the walls, the window; it's the same, it hasn't changed, but the shapes are inaccurate as though everything has warped slightly. I have to be more careful about my memories, I have to be sure they're my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I'll start inventing them and there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone. I run quickly over my version of it, my life, checking it like an alibi; it fits, it's all there till the time I left. Then static, like a jumped track, for a moment I've lost it, wiped clean; my exact age even, I shut my eyes, what is it? To have the past but not the present, that means you're going senile. (8.36)

    Hmm, what now? She's not sure sometimes if her memories are her own? That's a little weird… apparently, she believes that she has the capacity to invent memories or let other people shape what she remembers. This moment should put us a little bit on our guard about believing what she has to tell us.

    Ring on my finger. It was all real enough, it was enough reality for ever, I couldn't accept it, that mutilation, ruin I'd made, I needed a different version. I pieced it together the best way I could, flattening it, scrapbook, collage, pasting over the wrong parts. A faked album, the memories fraudulent as passports; but a paper house was better than none and I could almost live in it, I'd lived in it until now. (17.16)

    It seems that the narrator wasn't joking about her memories being potentially faulty. Late in the novel, we learn that some of the important details about her past (for example, regarding her ex-husband and child) were pretty inaccurate; she had faked the memories so that they were easier to swallow.

  • Foreignness

    David says "Bloody fascist pig Yanks," as though he's commenting on the weather. (1.11)

    David is fond of railing against the "Yanks"—Americans, that is—but his precise political commitments and his objections to Americans never really become clear. Given that David emerges as an egomaniacal bully, it seems like his xenophobia is more about hearing the sound of his own voice than anything else.

    Now we're on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing. (1.20)

    The narrator feels pretty awkward and foreign going back to the region where as grew up, as she's forced to try to communicate with some of the French-speaking residents. Apparently she's always felt fairly awkward about it.

    Madame has appeared in the kitchen doorway and Paul speaks with her in the nasal slanted French I can't interpret because I learned all but a few early words of mine in school. Folk songs and Christmas carols and, from the later grades, memorized passages of Racine and Baudelaire are no help to me here. (2.19)

    The narrator learned French in school, so her use of the language is very different from that of the Francophone individuals she encounters. As a result, she feels super-self-conscious about communicating in French with people like Madame, an old family friend who is Francophone.

    Neither knew more than five words of the other's language and after the opening Bonjours both would unconsciously raise their voices as though talking to a deaf person. (2.24)

    Here the narrator is describing her mother's struggles to communicate with Madame (and vice versa). Apparently, they would resort to screaming at each other to try to make themselves understood. It's quite an image.

    "Avez-vous du viande hâché?" I ask her, blushing because of my accent. She grins then and the two men grin also, not at me but at each other. I see I've made a mistake, I should have pretended to be an American. "Amburger, oh yes we have lots. How much?" she asks, adding the final H carelessly to show she can if she feels like it. This is border country. (3.4-6)

    When she goes into a shop to get some food for the group, the narrator ends up feeling super-embarrassed about communicating with the shopkeeper in French. Apparently her accent marks her off as so different that she believes it would have been better just to pretend to be American.

    "Reel in," I say to David. There's no sense in staying here now. If they catch one they'll be here all night, if they don't get anything in fifteen minutes they'll blast off and scream around the lake in their souped-up boat, deafening the fish. They're the kind who catch more than they can eat and they'd do it with dynamite if they could get away with it. (7.50)

    While they're out fishing, they encounter some Americans. Apparently their arrival ruins the expedition for the narrator for the reasons she outlines inwardly (it's unclear if she relays any of this thinking to David). Man, Americans really have a bad rep in this neck of the woods.

    "It wouldn't be a bad country if only we could kick out the fucking pig Americans, eh? Then we could have some peace." (10.43)

    David is back to railing against the Americans, but once again he (unlike the narrator) doesn't really provide any justification or explanation for his disdain.

    "We're not from the States," I said, annoyed that he'd mistaken me for one of them. "No kidding?" His face lit up, he'd seen a real native. "You from here?" "Yes," I said. "We all are." "So are we," said the back one unexpectedly. (15.24-27)

    The narrator and her friends discover that some "Americans" they've encountered are actually Canadians—and this other group had made the same mistake, thinking the narrator and her buddies were American. Jeez, why is everyone here so paranoid about foreignness?

    But they'd killed the heron anyway. It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning into. They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from inside and the ones that have the disease can't tell the difference. (15.32)

    Despite the discovery that the "Americans" were actually Canadian, the narrator keeps calling them American for the rest of the novel because, in her view, their behavior (in killing the heron) warrants that title. She admits that this "Americanness" is spreading, saying that the Americans are what "we are turning into." Perhaps that's why they were mistaken for non-Canadians?

    I had to concentrate in order to talk to him, the English words seemed imported, foreign; it was like trying to listen to two separate conversations, each interrupting the other. (18.14)

    Toward the end of the novel, after the narrator's epiphany in the lake, she starts feeling foreign to basically everything human, drifting away from "civilized" things like language and more toward the animalistic.

  • Religion

    The white doll-house-sized church above on the rock hillside is neglected, peeling paint and a broken window, the old priest must be gone. What I mean is dead. (2.10)

    The church and Catholicism aren't necessarily portrayed in the most positive (or reverent) light in the novel, and this early reference to the crumbling church and the "old priest" (who's probably dead) paints a picture of religion in decay in her home region.

    The old priest is definitely gone, he disapproved of slacks, the women had to wear long concealing skirts and dark stockings and keep their arms covered in church. (3.2)

    Apparently the "old priest" was pretty old fashioned and looked to women and their fashion choices to help safeguard the morality of his flock. Again, we get an image of the priest's brand of Catholicism as being pretty outdated (and hostile to women).

    This arm devoid of a hand was for me a great mystery, almost as puzzling as Jesus. (3.11)

    Here the narrator is remembering a shopkeeper in town who was missing a hand. There are several references to Jesus and religion, and the narrator's desire as a child to participate in and understand Catholic ritual. She does not appear to be Christian per se, but Christian ideas and figures flow through a lot of her thoughts and perceptions about the world around her, including nature (which is really the only truly "holy" thing to her, it seems).

    There are no dirty words any more, they've been neutered, now they're only parts of speech; but I recall the feeling, puzzled, baffled, when I found out some words were dirty and the rest were clean. The bad ones in French are the religious ones, the worst ones in any language were what they were most afraid of and in English it was the body, that was even scarier than God. You could also say Jesus Christ, but it meant you were angry or disgusted. I learned about religion the way most children then learned about sex, not in the gutter but in the gravel and cement schoolyard, during the winter months of real school. (5.23)

    Here, the narrator offers some interesting musings at the origins of curse words in English and French, and how they're related to religious fervor. According to her, among secular English-speakers, the body is the scariest thing, whereas it's religion among French-speaking Quebecois Catholics.

    When I started school myself I begged to be allowed to go to Sunday School, like everyone else; I wanted to find out, also I wanted to be less conspicuous. My father didn't approve, he reacted as though I'd asked to go to a pool hall. Christianity was something he'd escaped from, he wished to protect us from its distortions. But after a couple of years he decided I was old enough, I could see for myself, reason would defend me. (6.13)

    The narrator gives us some more background into her fascination with Christianity. Her father, for whom irrationality seemed to be the biggest no-no around, believed the narrator would need "reason" to "defend" herself against religion's influence.

    "Maybe I'll be a Catholic," I said to my brother; I was afraid to say it to my parents. "Catholics are crazy," he said. The Catholics went to a school down the street from ours and the boys threw snowballs at them in winter and rocks in spring and fall. "They believe in the B.V.M." I didn't know what that was and neither did he, so he said "They believe if you don't go to Mass you'll turn into a wolf." "Will you?" I said. "We don't go," he said, "and we haven't." (6.18-22)

    Taking things even further than their father, the narrator's brother suggests that Catholics believe that people turn into wolves if they don't go to mass. In addition to emphasizing the family's general belief that Catholicism=irrationality, the moment is a nice bit of foreshadowing, since the narrator does kind of turn into a wolf (or some other kind of critter) at the end—in any case, she tries to live more like an animal and makes a lair. Sounds pretty wolf-like, if you ask us…

    Later when I knew that wouldn't work, just Please be caught, invocation or hypnosis. He got more fish but I could pretend mine were willing, they had chosen to die and forgiven me in advance. (7.34)

    As a kid, the narrator used to pray to fish, begging them to let her catch them. In fact, she even came up with a fish-themed version of the Lord's Prayer. Of course, the fish is a well-known symbol for Jesus, so her conflation of the fish with self-sacrifice seems pretty apt.

    He said Jesus was a historical figure and God was a superstition, and a superstition was a thing that didn't exist. If you tell your children God doesn't exist they will be forced to believe you are the god, but what happens when they find out you are human after all, you have to grow old and die? Resurrection is like plants, Jesus Christ is risen today they sang at Sunday School, celebrating the daffodils; but people are not onions, as he so reasonably pointed out, they stay under. (12.28)

    The narrator is relaying more of her father's thoughts on religion. It seems he was more impressed by nature than the "superstition" of religion. According to him, only plants (not humans) can achieve resurrection.

    Then they accelerated and headed off towards the cliff where the gods lived. But they wouldn't catch anything, they wouldn't be allowed. It was dangerous for them to go there without knowing about the power; they might hurt themselves, a false move, metal hooks lowered into the sacred water, that could touch it off like electricity or a grenade. I had endured it only because I had a talisman, my father had left me the guides, the man-animals and the maze of numbers. (18.5)

    As we get deeper into the novel, the narrator becomes increasingly spiritual and convinced that she can receive signs and visions through her interactions with nature and the landscape. Her epiphany while swimming in the lake seems to have been the catalyst for this increased interest in a nature-based spirituality.

    I unfasten the window and go out; at once the fear leaves me like a hand lifting from my throat. There must be rules: places I'm permitted to be, other places I'm not. I'll have to listen carefully, if I trust them they will tell me what is allowed. I ought to have let them in, it may have been the only chance they will give me. (23.5)

    Once the narrator has gotten rid of her friends, she starts pursuing some kind of connection or communion with her (deceased) parents. She starts looking for signs or clues of what she can do to make that happen. In the middle of the night, she thinks she hears something—or someone—trying to get in, but she isn't sure what it is. Later, she thinks it was her parents, and she regrets not answering.

  • Family/Marriage

    But my reason for being here embarrasses them, they don't understand it. They all disowned their parents long ago, the way you are supposed to: Joe never mentions his mother and father, Anna says hers were nothing people and David calls his The Pigs. (2.6)

    Apparently, the narrator's peers consider it odd that she would come back to look for her missing father and hadn't "disowned" him. That attitude itself seems odder, no? Since when is disowning your parents is a rite of passage into adulthood?

    If he's safe I don't want to see him. There's no point, they never forgave me, they didn't understand the divorce; I don't think they even understood the marriage, which wasn't surprising since I didn't understand it myself. What upset them was the way I did it, so suddenly, and then running off and leaving my husband and child, my attractive full-colour magazine illustrations, suitable for framing. Leaving my child, that was the unpardonable sin; it was no use trying to explain to them why it wasn't really mine. (3.20)

    Oomph, drama. It appears that the narrator doesn't exactly have the simplest of relationships with her parents, since they didn't approve of her life choices with respect to the husband or kid. Of course, we later learn that the husband-kid thing didn't happen at all, so we don't really know how much of the truth the parents got and were reacting to.

    But I couldn't have brought the child here. I never identified it as mine; I didn't name it before it was born even, the way you're supposed to. It was my husband's, he imposed it on me, all the time it was growing in me I felt like an incubator. (4.6)

    The narrator does not have a warm and fuzzy view of the "miracle" of life, envisioning her pregnant self as a kind of incubator and referring to the baby as "it." Of course, her lack of connection with her "child" and pregnancy likely stems from the fact that she never actually carried that pregnancy to term (her memories here are faulty, as we learn later).

    It was my brother who made up these moral distinctions, at some point he became obsessed with them, he must have picked them up from the war. There had to be a good kind and a bad kind of everything. (4.33)

    The narrator's brother, whom we never meet except in flashbacks, is an interesting counterpoint to the narrator; as a child, she was gentle and interested in drawing bunny rabbits, while he drew pictures of war. Perhaps he is the "evil" to her "good"? In a novel that's obsessed with doubling, his relationship to his sister is interesting.

    We begin to climb and my husband catches up with me again, making one of the brief appearances, framed memories he specializes in: crystal clear image enclosed by a blank wall. (5.33)

    Early in the book, the narrator's memories of her "ex-husband" intrude frequently on her perceptions of the present. Her failed marriage seems to haunt her in the present, pursuing or "catching" her even when she's off doing, or thinking about, other things.

    She said you just had to make an emotional commitment, it was like skiing, you couldn't see in advance what would happen but you had to let go. Let go of what, I wanted to ask her; I was measuring myself against what she was saying. Maybe that was why I failed, because I didn't know what I had to let go of. For me it hadn't been like skiing, it was more like jumping off a cliff. That was the feeling I had all the time I was married; in the air, going down, waiting for the smash at the bottom. (5.40)

    The narrator has been asking Anna how she keeps the magic alive with David. Apparently, Anna didn't really have a whole lot of concrete information to give her about how to keep a successful marriage going. This isn't all that surprising, actually, given that we soon learn that Anna and David actually have a pretty crummy marriage.

    We reached the first portage at eleven. My feet moved over the rocks and mud, stepping in my own day-old footprints, backtracking; in my brain the filaments, trails reconnected and branched, we killed other people besides Hitler, before my brother went to school and learned about him and the games became war games. Earlier we would play we were animals; our parents were the humans, the enemies who might shoot or catch us, we would hide from them. (18.36)

    The narrator returns here to memories of her childhood with her brother, who definitely emerges as a potentially sinister figure. The notion of the two siblings playing war together and treating their parents as enemies makes the "play" aspect of this game seem a little, er, less playful.

    "Shut up, she's my wife," David said. His hand clamped down above her elbow. She jerked away, then I saw his arms go around her as if to kiss her and she was in the air, upside down over his shoulder, hair hanging in damp ropes. (16.20)

    David's (lack of) charm is in full force here as he's trying to bully his wife into stripping down for the camera. When she won't consent to it, he picks her up and threatens to throw her in the lake if she continues to hold out. Dear narrator, definitely go elsewhere for any and all future marriage advice.

    When he saw her next there would be no recantations, no elaborate reconciliation or forgiveness, they were beyond that. Neither of them would mention it, they had reached a balance almost like peace. Our mother and father at the sawhorse behind the cabin, mother holding the tree, white birch, father sawing, sun through the branches lighting their hair, grace. (16.43)

    After the incident between David and Anna over the latter's unwillingness to take off her clothes for the camera, the narrator reflects that the storm will pass easily, and nobody will remain mad about it. For some reason, her thoughts here dissolve into an image of her parents standing together. Are we supposed to believe that the "grace" of this image of them together is somehow akin to David and Anna's marriage? We're not so sure about that, but it's an odd juxtaposition for sure.

    He did say he loved me though, that part was true; I didn't make it up. It was the night I locked myself in and turned on the water in the bathtub and he cried on the other side of the door. When I gave up and came out he showed me snapshots of his wife and children, his reasons, his stuffed and mounted family, they had names, he said I should be mature. (18.4)

    When the jig is finally up and the narrator comes clean about the fact that she was never married or had a baby, we learn a lot more about her "ex-husband": it seems that he was married (to someone else) and had kids with his wife. The narrator is recalling an incident in which the ex tried to get her to be more "mature" about her emotions by showing her pictures of all the people he was cheating on to be there with her. Touching.

  • Time

    I can't believe I'm on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. (1.1)

    These opening lines to the novel give us the sense that it's been a looong time since the narrator has been home, given that she "can't believe" she's there.

    I thought of them as living in some other time, going about their own concerns closed safe behind a wall as translucent as jello, mammoths frozen in a glacier. All I would have to do was come back when I was ready but I kept putting it off, there would be too many explanations. (1.8)

    Apparently this is how the narrator thought of her parents after she left—frozen in time and unable to change. The fact that they've both moved on—her mother is dead and her father is missing (and likely dead)—is a bit traumatizing for her.

    When we're back in the car I say as though defending myself, "Those weren't here before." Anna's head swivels round, my voice must sound odd. "Before what?" she says. (1.37-38)

    The narrator is feeling defensive here for some reason. The others have been gazing admiringly at a family of stuffed moose dressed up in people-clothes. Perhaps the narrator believes that the others would have expected her to mention these curiosities, and that's why she feels the need to specify that they are new? In any case, Anna's question about "Before what?" is well taken—what is the big reference point (or reference points) for the narrator, in terms of marking her time both in and away from her hometown?

    The woman looks at me, inquisitive but not smiling, and the two men still in Elvis Presley haircuts, duck's ass at the back and greased pompadours curving out over their foreheads, stop talking and look at me too; they keep their elbows on the counter. (3.3)

    These men who are "still" sporting Elvis hair give the scene a kind of retro feel, adding to the narrator's overall portrayal of the place as decaying and stuck in the past.

    It was before I was born but I can remember it as clearly as if I saw it, and perhaps I did see it: I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother's stomach, like a frog in a jar. (3.34)

    Time is apparently so plastic in the narrator's universe that she can remember things that preceded her birth. While literally impossible, this image sets up a strange kind of continuity between the past and her present.

    The cedar logs are upright instead of horizontal, upright logs are shorter and easier for one man to handle. Cedar isn't the best wood, it decays quickly. Once my father said "I didn't build it to last forever" and I thought then, Why not? Why didn't you? (4.7)

    As we noted with respect to an earlier quote, the narrator seems to struggle with the fact that her parents have not remained frozen in time. This subject comes up again when the narrator is thinking about the construction of the cabin, which apparently wasn't made to last "forever."

    Grass is growing up in the path and in front of the gate; the weeds are a month tall. Ordinarily I would spend a few hours pulling them out, but it isn't worth it, we'll be here only two days. (4.23)

    She manages to cram a lot of units of time into these couple of sentences, no? From other references, we know she's used the growth of plants in the garden to determine how long her father has been gone. Her weighing of amounts of time and their significance may speak to a larger sense in which she's just trying to sort out time and its movements.

    There's no act I can perform except waiting; tomorrow Evans will ship us to the village, and after that we'll travel to the city and the present tense. I've finished what I came for and I don't want to stay here, I want to go back to where there is electricity and distraction. I'm used to it now, filling the time without it is an effort. (6.1)

    Here, the narrator suggests that being back home has kind of been like stepping back in time, and only leaving will bring her back into the "present tense." It's worth noting that the tense of the narrative shifts into the past tense soon after this moment—after David decides that they're all going to stay there for a few additional days. Apparently when the characters fail to move back to the present tense, the narration follows suit… for a few chapters, at least.

    He was speaking about it as though it was an exercising programme, athletic demonstration, ornamental swimming in a chlorine swimming pool noplace in California. "It wouldn't keep me healthy," I said, "I'd get pregnant." He lifted his eyebrows, incredulous. "You're putting me on," he said, "this is the twentieth century." "No it isn't," I said. "Not here." (18.23-25)

    When David tries to convince the narrator to have sex with him, he is shocked when she uses lack of birth control to brush him off. To him, being in the "twentieth century" means being able to have sex without getting pregnant. The narrator sets him straight by reminding him that the place they're staying is hopelessly rooted in the past.

    This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone. A lie which was always more disastrous than the truth would have been. (27.1)

    At the end of the book, the narrator seems committed to moving on from her past, which involves giving up the "old" beliefs that have hindered her and even been "disastrous." Looks like she might finally be willing and able to move into that present tense she has been hankering for.

  • War

    In one of those restaurants before I was born my brother got under the table and slid his hands up and down the waitress's legs while she was bringing the food; it was during the war and she had on shiny orange rayon stockings, he'd never seen them before, my mother didn't wear them. A different year there we ran through the snow across the sidewalk in our bare feet because we had no shoes, they'd worn out during the summer. In the car that time we sat with our feet wrapped in blankets, pretending we were wounded. My brother said the Germans shot our feet off. (1.3)

    World War II is referenced repeatedly throughout the novel. It seems to have quite an impact on the imaginations of the narrator and her older brother.

    Anna was right, I had a good childhood; it was in the middle of the war, flecked grey newsreels I never saw, bombs and concentration camps, the leaders roaring at the crowds from inside their uniforms, pain and useless death, flags rippling in time to the anthems. But I didn't know about that till later, when my brother found out and told me. At the time it felt like peace. (2.9)

    The narrator remembers having only the faintest awareness of World War II while she was growing up, even though it was going on at that time. However, as in the narrative, knowledge of the war's horrors ended up seeping in and having a significant presence and force in her thoughts.

    It was my brother who made up these moral distinctions, at some point he became obsessed with them, he must have picked them up from the war. There had to be a good kind and a bad kind of everything. (4.33)

    Apparently the narrator's brother was pretty into the twin concepts of good and evil, which the narrator attributes to his knowledge about, and preoccupation with, the war.

    He didn't dislike people, he merely found them irrational; animals, he said, were more consistent, their behavior at least as predictable. To him that's what Hitler exemplified: not the triumph of evil but the failure of reason. (6.37)

    Hitler actually comes up a few times in the novel, suggesting that he still occupies a relatively important place in the narrator's imagination. Here, the narrator describes her father's perspective on Hitler's defining characteristic, which (according to him) wasn't evil so much as irrationality.

    "A snooping base," he said, bird-watchers, binoculars, it all fits. They know this is the kind of place that will be strategically important during the war." 

    "What war?" I asked, and Anna said "Here we go." (11.48)

    David apparently believes that the U.S. and Canada will go to war over the latter's water resources, so his theory is that some bird-watching Americans are there scoping things out and setting up a base. Anna seems to have heard this all before…

    We reached the first portage at eleven. My feet moved over the rocks and mud, stepping in my own day-old footprints, backtracking; in my brain the filaments, trails reconnected and branched, we killed other people besides Hitler, before my brother went to school and learned about him and the games became war games. Earlier we would play we were animals; our parents were the humans, the enemies who might shoot or catch us, we would hide from them. (18.36)

    Even before the narrator's brother brought the knowledge of war home from school, their games were conflict and violence oriented; in those days, it was about the conflict between the humans and the animals (a tension that the narrator still perceives in her present day).

    I didn't want there to be wars and death, I wanted them not to exist; only rabbits with their coloured egg houses, sun and moon orderly above the flat earth, summer always, I wanted everyone to be happy. But his pictures were more accurate, the weapons, the disintegrating soldiers: he was a realist, that protected him. He almost drowned once but he would never allow that to happen again, by the time he left he was ready. (15.41)

    The narrator seems to believe that, because she was into drawing peaceful things like eggs and bunny rabbits as a child, she was less of a "realist" than her brother, who was more into war-related imagery. The idea seems to be that violence is a part of reality, one that her brother confronted and she tried to escape.

    The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human. In a way it was stupid to be more disturbed by a dead bird than by those other things, the wars and riots and the massacres in the newspapers. But for the wars and riots there was always an explanation, people wrote books about them saying why they happened: the death of the heron was causeless, undiluted. (15.38)

    As the narrator herself acknowledges, her extreme reaction to the dead heron seems a bit strange, given that there's a whole bunch of other serious stuff going on that barely gets a reaction out of her (like David's consistently bullying and jerky behavior, her conflicts with Joe, and oh yeah, her missing father). The senseless brutality of the heron's murder is what seems to get under her skin—like her father with Hitler, irrationality really bothers her. The narrator makes sure we're thinking about this moment through the lens of the war by a) bringing up wars and b) talking about the "trouble some people have being German," presumably in the wake of World War II.

    They may have been sent to hunt for me, perhaps the others asked them to, they may be the police; or they may be sightseers, curious tourists. Evans will have told at the store, the whole village will know. Or the war may have started, the invasion, they are Americans. (25.2)

    Later in the novel, when the narrator has hidden from the others and is adopting an animal lifestyle, she thinks to herself that perhaps the "Americans" have invaded Canada. Given the incident with the heron earlier, which she attributed to the "Americans" (who were actually Canadian), it seems she was already feeling that their country had been invaded by bad values.

    I try to think for the first time what it was like to be them: our father, islanding his life, protecting both us and himself, in the midst of war and in a poor country, the effort it must have taken to sustain his illusions of reason and benevolent order, and perhaps he didn't. (26.11)

    World War II pops up yet again, as the narrator considers how her father maintained his beliefs (and probably sanity) in light of things like war and poverty. Even out in the woods, it seems like he was not able to isolate himself and his family from knowledge of violence and unreason, if the preceding narrative was any indicator.

  • Love

    He measured everything he would let me eat, he was feeding it on me, he wanted a replica of himself; after it was born I was no more use. I couldn't prove it though, he was clever: he kept saying he loved me. (4.6)

    The narrator seems puzzled by the concept of love and may even doubt that her ex-husband actually loved her—at least, she suggests there was something strategic or crafty about his use of the word.

    I'm trying to decide whether or not I love him. It shouldn't matter, but there's always a moment when curiosity becomes more important to them than peace and they need to ask; though he hasn't yet. (5.4)

    Perhaps the narrator has trouble believing that people could love her because she can't relate to the emotion—she certainly can't seem to figure out if she loves Joe.

    He said he loved me, the magic word, it was supposed to make everything light up, I'll never trust that word again. (5.33)

    Although we don't really have all the details yet, the narrator indicates that her ex-husband used "love" as some kind of magic charm to get whatever he wanted. At first it just seems like potential ego problems on her part, but maybe there's something to her claim that he uses the L-word for his own crafty purposes? Stay tuned…

    Love without fear, sex without risk, that's what they wanted to be true; and they almost did it, I thought, they almost pulled it off, but as in magicians' tricks or burglaries half-success is failure and we're back to the other things. Love is taking precautions. (9.24)

    The narrator offers yet another relatively unromantic take on "love," which involves making sure you have plenty of birth control and a low risk of pregnancy.

    I wondered if that was the equivalent of saying I loved him. I was calculating how much getaway money I had in the bank, how long it would take me to pack and move out, away from the clay dust and the cellar mould smell and the monstrous humanoid pots, how soon I could find a new place. Prove your love, they say. (10.28)

    She has just assured Joe that, contrary to his belief, she does give a darn about him (sorry for the language, Shmoopers), and she is hoping that will suffice (i.e., she'll be off the hook for not saying "I love you" outright). However, given that she's running through plans to move out, it seems like she doesn't think the ploy will work.

    "Do you love me, that's all," he said. "That's the only thing that matters."

    It was the language again, I couldn't use it because it wasn't mine. He must have known what he meant but it was an imprecise word; the Eskimoes had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them, there ought to be as many for love.

    "I want to," I said. ""I do in a way." I hunted through my brain for any emotion that would coincide with what I'd said. I did want to, but it was like thinking God should exist and not being able to believe. (12.51-53)

    Joe is finally asking the narrator straight out whether she loves him, and she still isn't ready to answer in the affirmative. The word just doesn't fit any of the emotions she has for him.

    Anna hadn't told me, she had left something out; or else he was lying. "But she loves you," I said. (16.37)

    When confronted with the brutal truth of how bad Anna and David's marriage actually is, the narrator resorts to saying Anna loves David, even though we know she doesn't actually really connect with that word or its meaning. As a result, the phrase seems like cold comfort.

    He did say he loved me though, that part was true; I didn't make it up. It was the night I locked myself in and turned on the water in the bathtub and he cried on the other side of the door. When I gave up and came out he showed me snapshots of his wife and children, his reasons, his stuffed and mounted family, they had names, he said I should be mature. (18.4)

    Now we're getting to the bottom of why the narrator viewed her ex's "I love you" as hollow: he used those words to comfort her when she was cranky about their relationship (and perhaps the fact that it was an affair?), and he had to remind her to be "mature" and consider his family.

    "Oh," I said; I thought about it for a minute. "Maybe they love each other." It would be logical, they were the ones who could. "Do you love me," I asked in case I hadn't understood him, "is that why you want me to?" (18.27)

    In trying to convince the narrator to sleep with him, David tells her that Joe is off having sex with Anna. Instead of getting upset and wanting to have revenge sex with David, the narrator is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, wondering if that mysterious L-word is at the heart of all this infidelity, or attempted infidelity.

    I watch him, my love for him useless as a third eye or a possibility. (27.9)

    Finally, in the final lines of the novel, we learn in passing that the narrator has decided that she does feel love for Joe—even if she does call it "useless." We're unclear on how these newfound feelings will affect her life or willingness to return to the city with him.