What follows is something between a review of and a response to Martha Schabas’s first novel, Various Positions. Some of the content of this blog post gives away minor plot points in the text. (For some reason, this book received only 3 stars on GoodReads, but it is clearly in the 3.5 range.)
Martha Schabas is not Sylvia Plath, Anne-Marie MacDonald, or David Mitchell. Her first novel is not an extraordinarily seamless, perfect thing. And that’s okay. It’s excellent fiction in its own right, and I don’t mind that it reads like a first novel. Schabas’ prose ranges from clear and simple, to raw and almost choppy, to ambitious and surprisingly beautiful. Reading it feels a bit like an exercise in learning to write, and that’s probably the number one reason that I enjoyed this text as much as I did. This is a read that definitely requires some patience through the opening pages, but I promise that it pays off.
The plot of the book is simple: a young ballet dancer auditions for, and is accepted to the elite training school for the Canadian National Ballet, located in Toronto, Ontario (the company, and the school, are real). While there, she encounters people (teachers and students alike) that are serious about ballet and treat her, for the first time, as a professional and an adult. Among her peers, and increasingly among the adults in her life, she is exposed to sexuality and desire for the first time. Add to this an interesting sub-plot involving her home life (I don’t want to give anything away!), and it’s a pretty intense read. Various Positions reminds me, in a small way, of Nancy Huston’s Slow Emergencies, though that might be because both are dance novels concerned with the intersection of aesthetics and intimate life.
Shabas’ book takes up the themes of aesthetics and sexuality in equal measure, and painstakingly details the processes by which the young protagonist, Georgia, learns to understand herself as embodying both. At the centre of this novel is an inquiry into the development of female sexuality in a culture that insists on framing young women as desirable, rather than desiring, and as objects of a gaze, rather than as gazing subjects. Schabas’s narrator develops slowly and carefully in a manner consistent with her character’s qualities– Georgia is fundamentally a good kid with a strong devotion to ballet, and wants as much to follow the rules as she does to not rock the boat. Through a series of events that are sometimes tied to the natural (she begins, along with her classmates and friends, to go through puberty) and sometimes specific to the character (without giving away too much, I’ll say this- changes in the shape and nature of her family unit), the rules, spoken and unspoken, that Georgia had been previously grounded by begin to change, and Georgia learns to change with them.
Schabas’s best talent is striking a balance between careful treatment of sensitive material, and raw and realistic depictions of human desire and failings. She avoids moralizing, and instead directs her reader to an understanding of power dynamics and sexuality as complex, and multi-faceted. My experience of reading this text shifted- one moment I wanted someone to blame for the scandal at the center, and the next I concretely understood that guilt and blame were beside the point. My relationship to the narrative, too, is personal: though I grew up in a different geography, and with a very different family structure than Georgia (who lives on the cusp of a wealthy suburb in Toronto, and who never questions the cost of her training, or the safety of her neighborhood), I empathize with her extreme devotion to an aesthetic art, and with the way that it leaves her isolated from others her own age.