“As long as I drank out of stemware, I was sure it was not possible for me to be an alcoholic.”
That’s Marissa, narrator of Annelies Pool’s 2015 novel Free Love, shortly after winding up in a Yellowknife detox centre surrounded by losers and bad novels. (“The best I could find was a Robert Ludlum.”)
From the very beginning it’s clear this novel has grit. “Mary told me to fuck off without taking her eyes from the TV,” we learn about a fellow “inmate.”
But I was genuinely astonished at just how real this book got. Free Love isn’t just about alcoholism: it’s about sexual promiscuity, and the forces that drive it, and that’s something we just don’t talk about.
I had wondered about that title. It seemed weak, and the blurb on the back of the book does nothing to explain it. The first half of the story doesn’t either, apart from several — and I mean several — mentions of casual sex. Then we hit chapter twenty-one, where Marissa, as part of her journey through AA, has a conversation with one of her mentors that’s truly shocking. It’s about sex first, booze second: actually, booze as a gateway to sex, or vice versa. Without giving it away, the story is about a young woman who gives out her body in an iconic fashion with zero reflection on the consequences, or why she’s doing it. Marissa, we learn, is guilty of something similar. Something she’s always considered part of her personal philosophy of “free love.” Something she’s looking at now in a whole new light.
Now this is interesting (not to mention “astonishing in its vulnerability and courage,” as Richard Van Camp puts it in his book jacket blurb — agreed).
The story flips back and forth between Marissa’s fractured youth in Hamilton in the 1960s, and the present day, which is set among a small flock of Yellowknife drunks (er, recovering alcoholics, but they call themselves drunks), many of whom have stories even more dramatic than Marissa’s.
Not only is this a great way for a storyteller to reach into the weird corners of Yellowknife life: it’s a great way to put newbie Marissa and her own problems neatly into her place. I expected this book to pin the blame on Yellowknife as a “hard-partying town” that somehow drives people to booze, as I’ve heard many (intellectually lazy) people suggest about this city. Instead, Free Love zooms in on individual characters who turn to alcohol to fix various problems in their lives.
Sex is almost always a part of the story.
I thought immediately of Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. (I haven’t read that book, but I saw the movie.) A major part of that story is the main character’s total lack of inhibition regarding sex with strangers, and the self-loathing that drives this behaviour. Free Love is ultimately just as brave. Perhaps more. I mean, Pool still lives here! (And “Strayed” was a pen name.)
Pool doesn’t only write about women putting out. She also includes the story of a man haunted by a naive experience in which he’s a perpetrator.
Why did it take me so long to read this book? Apart from my understanding that it was about alcoholism, which neither pertains nor interests me greatly, though I recognize it’s a hugely important subject in the place where I live, I have to admit an innate reluctance to read self-published novels. This idea is also out of date. Many — perhaps most — of the recent books in Yellowknife have been self-published in some form or other, and are very good. This speaks to a bigger problem in the publishing business, which in Canada is centred in Toronto, staffed by women who probably don’t get the same enjoyment that Yellowknifers might derive from this description of a hoppin’ Gold Range: “Ernie Sparrow, the government minister of social services, was at a table near the dance-floor, drinking with Joseph Blackstock, the chair of the NWT Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Council, who had the heavy-faced inward focus of somebody who had been drinking for days.”
But I have to admit: I might never have read this book at all if I hadn’t come across a short story by Pool in a 2012 anthology (that I believe she organized in her role as Northwords executive director) called Coming Home: Stories from the Northwest Territories. Pool’s story, called “Celia’s Inner Anorexic,” is also about sex, this time between a middle-aged lady and a way, way younger man. It’s also extremely funny.
Free Love is funny too. One AA member uses a moving van as the “higher power” that will help complete her AA steps (Marissa chooses a house plant). Attending a funeral, Marissa can’t help but wonder whether the deceased will actually be buried in that expensive leather vest.
In addition, this book is shot through with tension, questions and moral suspense.
There’s also some plain good writing. Example: “his head was so close to the pages of the book that I thought he was going to snort them,” and “Pandi lived in a swayback trailer that had a porch growing out of its side like a tumour.”
In that back-cover blurb, Richard Van Camp also calls this “the first novel set in Yellowknife that I find believable.” There is something of Van Camp in this novel: his willingness to go hard places, an insistence on investigating both the good and bad in people. And there’s something great about reading scenes set in and around the Gold Range, pilot’s monument, the Yellowknife River and Prosperous Lake.
For all the people who head north to run away from problems, it’s amazing that we don’t have more stories like this. But at least we have one, and it’s warm, funny and highly enjoyable reading.
By Annelies Pool
Prelude Books 2015