Sarah Court, Craig Davidson. ChiZine Publications, Toronto, September 2010, $16.95, ISBN 9781926851006.
Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.
According to Philip Nanavatti, fireworker and resident of Sarah Court, the best fireworks create, for the viewer, a “mushrooming imprint”: a vivid afterimage that keeps expanding once the viewer’s eyes have closed. His fireworks are described as linked lines of combustibles, packed together in tiny breakable chambers, an apt metaphor for the lives in this novel. Each character’s flame-out sets off another, and even once the novel ends, the reader comes away with the mushrooming imprint of all the other damage yet to be done.
Sarah Court, the eggshell holding all these explosives, is a neighbourhood and microcosm of St. Catharines, Ontario. Davidson knows the place well, right down to particular strip clubs and donut shops, and gives us a relentlessly detailed picture. You wouldn’t want to live in this St. Catharines. Neither do the residents of Sarah Court. They struggle to leave, or to help their children leave.
All of the narrators of Sarah Court are parents, of a sort, and most of them are fathers. Parenthood, here, is a fraught endeavour. Not all of the children survive it intact, though they strive mightily in their various ways. Wesley Hill’s son is an aging stuntman; Fletcher Burger’s daughter is an injured powerlifter; Frank Saberhagen’s son Nick, a boxer who will never be champion of anything. Nick Saberhagen has a son of his own, one of the most endearing characters in the novel, a chubby ten-year-old who wears a vampire costume to school and is, inevitably, bullied.
Adoptive parenting is not spared, either: Patience Nanavatti, the fireworker’s daughter, finds a baby abandoned in a Wal-Mart toilet; Clara Russell takes in foster children. In turn, many of the children adopt baby squirrels. The fates of the squirrels are spelled out for the reader in grievous detail; we’re spared hearing the fates of some of the people, but we are invited to imagine.
“Those closest we ruin worst,” says Frank Saberhagen to Fletcher Burger as they contemplate the wreckage of their good intentions. Everyone in Sarah Court plays out this pattern–it’s love, not cruelty, that causes hurt. Love drives fathers to berate their daughters. Love drives mothers to give their sons away. Toward the end of the book, we meet a character who does not feel himself to be capable of love. The ruin he inflicts is less painful, since it falls on evildoers as well as the innocent.
The speculative element in Sarah Court is subtle, and each of the individual characters’ stories could be told without it. What it provides is a unifying viewpoint on the lives in Sarah Court, St. Catharines. Without it, we might disbelieve some of the horrors we’ve been told. We might feel skeptical of a place where so many miseries coexist.
But they can. They do. I lived there too.