The Sound Of The Singing by Margaret Laurence, 1970
The magic trick:
Keeping the story slow and quite, before introducing the central character near the end
We’re doing something a little different on SSMT, starting a 10-day series in the respective imagined/remembered Canadas of Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. Friends and contemporaries, they must have influenced each other’s work. Certainly, both have a knack for hitting readers with climaxes when they least expect them.
The first half of the series features the fist five stories in Laurence’s 1970 collection, A Bird In The House, which plays very much like a story cycle or even episodic novel. Same characters in each story. The things that happen in one story carry over and affect the premise of the next story.
We start with “The Sound Of The Singing,” where we meet our young protagonist, Vanessa, who is an interesting mix of lonely, precocious, sullen, and sweet. What she is more than anything is observant, which is good for us, because we will see much of these stories from her 10-year-old perspective.
“The Sound Of The Singing” demonstrates Laurence’s patience. Or maybe I should say it demonstrates Laurence’s demand of the reader’s patience. Very little indicating a plot shows itself during the story’s first 20 pages or so. After much family backstory set up and many quiet Sunday afternoon conversations around the house, the story introduces a new character into the mix. The plot takes off from there. And you’ve stuck around and adapted to the slow pace, the ending makes for a nice payoff.
And that’s quite a trick on Laurence’s part.
Ample and waistless in her brown silk dress, Grandmother was sitting in the dining room watching the canary. The bird had no name. She did not believe in bestowing names upon non-humans, for a name to her meant a christening, possibly only for Christians. She called the canary “Birdie,” and maintained that this was not like a real name. It was swaying lightly on the bird-swing in its cage, its attentive eyes fixed upon her. She often sat here, quietly and apparently at ease, not feeling it necessary to be talking or doing, beside the window sill with its row of African violets in old ginger jars that had been painted orange. She would try to coax the canary into its crystal trilling, but it was a surly creature and obliged only occasionally. She liked me to sit here with her, and sometimes I did, but I soon grew impatient and began squirming, until Grandmother would say, “All right, pet, you run along, now,” and then I would be off like buckshot. When I asked my grandmother if the bird minded being there, she shook her head and said no, it had been there always and wouldn’t know what to do with itself outside, and I thought this must surely be so, for it was a family saying that she couldn’t tell a lie if her life depended on it.
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