Amanda Eyre Ward diagnoses Joan Barfoot's latest novel.
Critical Injuriesby Joan Barfoot
Counterpoint, 336 pp., $25
In this time of European floods, market crashes, and rising unemployment, it's refreshing to read a book that makes you feel lucky to have legs. In fact, I finished Critical Injuries -- the new novel by Canadian writer Joan Barfoot, whose eight previous novels include Getting Over Edgar, Abra, and Dancing in the Dark -- and walked around the block, just because I could, savoring the movement of my limbs.
In the first chapter of Critical Injuries, Isla, a 49-year-old woman, hops in her second husband's truck to go get some ice cream at the local parlor, Goldie's. Isla is in love, the day is sunny, and she walks in on a robbery. Roddy, a local teenager who has never before shot a gun, has decided with a friend to rob Goldie's. Isla walks in at the wrong moment, startling Roddy. He turns and fires, lodging a bullet in Isla's spine.
The novel begins with Isla coming out of sedation, paralyzed from the neck down. In a feisty voice with which readers will become familiar, Isla lays it out: "From too little information, suddenly too much. Vertebrae. Surgery. Bullet. Not an ending to something strange and confusing, but the beginning of something too awful to contemplate. One of those moments when life turns completely ass-over-teakettle, in no good way, no good way at all." The structure of Barfoot's novel is interesting: Chapters from Isla's point of view alternate with chapters from the point of view of Roddy, the perpetrator. As Isla muses over her disastrous first marriage, her troubled children, and her relationship with her mother, Roddy is captured and imprisoned. Both characters adjust to the confines of their new situations, and their stories cast light upon each other, illuminating the twin themes of regret and the recognition of joy.
Of the two characters, Isla is the stronger, her voice clearer and more convincing. And each time I began to find Isla's voice a bit cloying, Barfoot used Isla's jaunty manner to expose serious truths. I found myself rereading comments like "Love is hard. It makes a person too vulnerable to the well-being of others. That's how grief happens. Also joy." And, " she made being trusting and hopeful sound like virtues, not stupidities, without entertaining the third possibility, that they were both."