Carole Giangrande’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air (Inanna Publications, 2017) centres around events in the life of Valerie Lefèvre, a New York-born woman married for over thirty years to Gerard, a French-Canadian man who is a political journalist, travelling the globe to cover wars, terrorism and other atrocities. A tragic incident from his past drives him to cover such events and places. Finding herself with an empty nest, Valerie becomes a landscaper in Toronto, tending gardens for those too busy to do so themselves. She is not particularly fond of Gerard’s occupation (or rather, his preoccupation), for she finds the grief and sorrow he brings home has invaded her life too:
She didn’t have to travel to find sorrow. It was the soil from which the world was made. She didn’t know how to tell Gerard that his grief had seeped into her bones. Nor did she know what human thing she could do about any of it.
The book opens with Valerie on the tiny French island of St. Pierre, which is just off the south coast of Newfoundland where she is visiting Marguerite, a cousin of Gerard’s and, not incidentally, where she and Gerard spent their honeymoon over thirty years ago. It is the early morning of September 11th, 2001. Walking through the town, Valerie hears clocks ticking:
Valerie noticed a sign a short block from the intersection, right next door to the photo shop. Horlogerie. The clock shop was too far away for such a racket, but as she approached it, the sound grew no louder. The shop turned out to be nothing special, with its display window full of conservative gold wristwatches, black leather-banded ones, a few funky pastel styles with fat faces and big hands. She could glimpse larger, noisier clocks inside. Next to the door was a plaque that read L. Sarazin, Propriétaire. The door was open, but there was no one behind the counter. The shop was empty.
We later we discover the shops’ beloved owner has passed away during the night. Has time ceased on the island of St.Pierre now that its sole purveyor is no more? Seeing and hearing clocks takes Valerie back in time to her childhood where a neighbour boy named Matt Reilly had a father who made clocks. Not ordinary clocks, but fantastical clocks built into furniture, books and even the floor. They were all named after Charles Reilly’s’ deceased war buddies including Jeremiah, Valerie’s father, who was found drowned one day after a fishing accident (but smacks of a PTSD induced suicide).While pondering these thoughts from her past, there are her present concerns: her strained marriage, her son Andre (who lives in New York with his partner James), as well as her past romantic relationship with Matt (who became a priest shortly after returning from Vietnam). Now, the terrorist attacks on the twin towers are carried out. Valerie now has the added worries for the safety of Gerard (who is on assignment in NYC), and Andre, whose many clients are in the towers, and even of James, a chef in the tower’s restaurant. Matt too is involved for he is booked on a flight out of Boston. Valerie, on a remote island with spotty Internet access and no immediate way of communicating with any of her loved ones in New York, can only watch it unfold on TV (where she glimpses fleeting images of an ash—covered Gerard scrambling to interview survivors on the street) and attempt to distract herself by cooking, cleaning and baking for Marguerite but with little success. Memories keep wafting in; even the simplest tasks like baking or stacking the dishwasher recall memories from the past. Somnambulating the charming streets and ghostlike shops (replete with phantom-like shopkeepers) of St. Pierre, she chance encounters the pilot Jean-Claude who is grounded from flying by events and wishes only to fly: (“I just have to be in the sky again” he tells her). Valerie has apparently found a soulmate of suffering in a place with few if any strangers. A flight in a borrowed seaplane “shimmering white in the darkness” helps them to reconcile their emotions, and Valerie emerges with a changed perspective on the day’s events and all she has experienced.
All That is Solid Melts into Air is a magical work of literature, brimming with wondrous imagery and subtle threads of the future/present/past entwined in a radiant narrative that will have you feeling Valerie’s pain, sensing her confusion and her desire to keep busy while she awaits any news regarding the fate of her loved ones. Her solid world (and the world around her) has melted into air.
Highly recommended for a book club discussion, I am immediately placing it on the longlist for a 2017 “Very Best!” Book Award for fiction.