“How can anyone have a child and keep such a thing hidden?”
In the late 1950’s the Briar family of Rocky Point, Cape Breton unsuccessfully attempt to keep their third child, Joseph hid in his room, not to be spoken of or seen by anyone outside of the immediate family.
“Joseph Briar, born of original shame, the product of an old sperm and a soft egg; his stern sixty-one-year-old father laid down the fundamental lie. He and Rosie his much younger wife, had two children only – Anntell and Arthur. This hard rule, this telling deceit, set down by Duncan Briar, was not to be taken lightly.”
Arthur charges his classmates twenty-five cents to peer at Joseph through the Geranium window, watching as Joseph sits in in the middle of a bare room, banging away on a homemade drum, listening to birdsong and not doing much else (his condition, while not named, appears to be Cerebral Palsy). This, of course, does nothing to keep Joseph’s existence a secret in the small community where Duncan Briar is a wealthy mill owner. He is also an oppressive husband and father. Beautiful, literate and precocious Anntell is Duncan’s favourite child, having given up on Arthur becoming any sort of “man’s man” and taking eventual control of the mill. Arthur is too close to his mother, while Anntell reminds Duncan of his late beloved father. The only other major character in The Geranium Window is Alfie Johns a classmate (and admirer of Anntell), who is intrigued by Joseph, and visits him at the window on Sundays when the Briars are at church, leaving Joseph in the care of Rosie’s mother who has recently gone blind from untreated glaucoma. Alfie’s interest in Joseph may stem from the fact that Alfie was given up for adoption by his teenage mother, a fact he discovered accidentally one day by finding the papers in his adoptive family’s large Bible (between the books of Genesis and Exodus). Alfie has found a silent soulmate in the Briar’s concealed child.
George Elliot Clarke, Canadian Poet Laureate, has been quoted as saying: “Beatrice MacNeil’s writing resembles a painting, a beautifully textured, wondrously detailed painting.” In The Geranium Window, it is more like a photograph, since Alfie takes up photography at an early age eventually becoming internationally renowned. Many of his best pictures are of people and places in Rocky Point, such as this one of Joseph feeding Scarf, a pet crow that came every day for some seeds:
“Joseph’s small hand holds out an offering. His fingers twigged together holding a sprinkle of seeds. A river of tiny bloodlines crisscross his hand like a map. Directions of a sort, for the pet crow “Scarf” to get to his feast. The vanished thrill from Joseph’s lungs while Scarf feasted slid down the photograph and created an echo in the silent white room.”
There are many moments throughout the book, where Ms MacNeil gives us detailed imagery, describing scenes like photographs that we cannot see.
The Geranium Window was an enjoyable and fascinating book to read; I just knew within the first few pages that it was going to be special, it is the calm, introspective type of fiction that immediately appeals to me. However, about two-thirds of the way through the book, I felt like I had had enough of a good thing and that Alfie’s relentless search for Anntell (somewhat reminding me of Larry Darrell and Sophie from M. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge) dragged on a bit too long. It would have been more interesting to have read the dialogue they would have had once they finally met. Nevertheless, if you favour a gratifying and engrossing story with a balance of tragedy and happiness, then you will enjoy The Geranium Window.
Beatrice MacNeil is the bestselling author of Where White Horses Gallop, Butterflies Dance in the Dark, and The Moonlight Skater. She has won the Dartmouth Book Award on three occasions and the Tic Butler Award for outstanding contribution to Cape Breton writing and culture. She lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.