Rennie Wilford is a journalist who writes about the latest trends and considers herself an expert on the superficial surfaces of life.
When her own life takes a dark turn, she seeks to recuperate by flying to the Caribbean to research a fluffy travel piece. But her carelessly chosen destination, the tiny island of St. Antoine, is on the verge of a violent revolution and Rennie soon finds herself ensnared in a world of corruption and treachery and unsure whom to trust.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:November 18, 1939
Place of Birth:Ottawa, Ontario
Education:B.A., University of Toronto, 1961; M.A. Radcliffe, 1962; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1967
Read an Excerpt
This is how I got here, says Rennie.
It was the day after Jake left. I walked back to the house around five. I'd been over at the market and I was carrying the shopping basket as well as my purse. There wasn't as much to carry now that Jake wasn't there any more, which was just as well because the muscles in my left shoulder were aching, I hadn't been keeping up the exercises. The trees along the street had turned and the leaves were falling onto the sidewalk, yellow and brown, and I was thinking, Well, it's not so bad, I'm still alive.
My next-door neighbour, an old Chinese man whose name I didn't know, was tidying up his front yard. The yard in front of my house had been covered over with paving stones so you could park a car on it. That meant the street was going up rather than down, and in a few years I'd have to move; though I'd stopped thinking in years. My neighbour had pulled up the dead plants and was raking the earth into a raised oblong. In the spring he'd plant things I didn't know the names for. I remember thinking it was time I learned the names, if I was going to live there.
I did notice the cruiser, which they'd left beside a meter like any other car, no flashing lights, but it was a few doors away so I didn't pay much attention to it. You see more police cars down there than you might farther north.
The front door was open, which wasn't out of place on such a warm day. The downstairs neighbour, an old woman who isn't the landlady but behaves like one, has cats and likes to leave the outside door ajar so they can get in and go through the cat door. "Cat hole," Jake calls it; used to call it.
My own door at the top of the stairs was open too. There were people inside, men, I could hear them talking, and then a laugh. I couldn't think who it could be, it wasn't Jake, but whoever it was didn't seem to care who knew they were there. The key was under the mat where I always leave it, but the edge of the doorframe was splintered, the lock was shoved right out of it. I went into the livingroom, which was still piled with the boxes of books Jake had packed but not collected. Nothing had been moved. Through the kitchen doorway I could see feet and legs, shining feet, pressed legs.
Two policemen were sitting at the table. I had that quick rush of fear, late for school, caught on the boys' stairs, caught out. The only thing I could think of was that they were after the pot, but there were no drawers pulled open and the tea and coffee canisters were where they should be. Then I remembered that Jake had taken the whole stash with him. Why not? It was his. Anyway, surely they'd stopped worrying about that, everyone does it now, even the police, it's almost legal.
The younger one stood up, the older one didn't. He stayed sitting down, smiling up at me as if I'd come for a job interview.
You Miss Wilford? he asked. He didn't wait. You're damn lucky. He had a massive head, with the hair clipped short like a punker's. His was left over though, from sometime in the fifties: no green highlights.
Why? I said. What's the matter?
You've got good neighbours, the younger one said. He looked like a high-school gym teacher or a Baptist, about twenty-two, earnest and severe. The one downstairs. She was the one who phoned.
Was it a fire? I said. There was no sign of it, no smell.
The older one laughed. The other one didn't. No, he said. She heard footsteps up here and she knew it wasn't you, she saw you go out, and she didn't hear anyone go up the stairs. He jimmied open your kitchen window.
I put the shopping basket on the table; then I went and looked at the window, which was open about two feet. The white paint was scratched.
You could do it with a jackknife, he said. You should get those safety locks. He heard us coming and went back out through the window.
Did he take anything? I said.
You'll have to tell us that, said the older one.
The young one looked uneasy. We don't think he was a burglar, he said. He made himself a cup of Ovaltine. He was just waiting for you, I guess. There was a cup on the table, half full of something light brown. I felt sick: someone I didn't know had been in my kitchen, opening my refrigerator and my cupboards, humming to himself maybe, as if he lived there; as if he was an intimate.
What for? I said.
The older one stood up. He took up a lot of space in the kitchen. Take a look, he said, pleased with himself, in charge. He had a present he'd been saving up. He walked past me into the livingroom and then into the bedroom. I was glad I'd made the bed that morning: lately I hadn't always.
There was a length of rope coiled neatly on the quilt. It wasn't any special kind of rope, there was nothing lurid about it. It was off-white and medium thick. It could have been a clothesline.
All I could think of was a game we used to play, Detective or Clue, something like that. You had to guess three things: Mr. Green, in the conservatory, with a pipewrench; Miss Plum, in the kitchen, with a knife. Only I couldn't remember whether the name in the envelope was supposed to be the murderer's or the victim's. Miss Wilford, in the bedroom, with a rope.
He was just waiting for you, the younger one said behind me.
Drinking his Ovaltine, the big one said. He smiled down at me, watching my face, almost delighted, like an adult who's just said I told you so to some rash child with a skinned knee.
So you were lucky, the younger one said. He came past me and picked up the rope, carefully, as if it had germs. I could see now that he was older than I'd thought, he had anxious puckers around the eyes.
The big one opened the closet door, casually, as if he had every right. Two of Jake's suits were still hanging there.
You live alone, that right? the big one said.
I said yes.
These your pictures? said the big one, grinning.
No, I said. They belong to a friend of mine. The pictures were Jake's, he was supposed to take them away.
Quite a friend, said the big one.
He must've been watching you for a while, said the young one. He must've known when you'd get home. Any idea who it might be?
No, I said. I wanted to sit down. I thought of asking them if they wanted a beer.
Some nut, the big one said. If you knew what was walking around loose out there you'd never go out. You close the curtains in the bathroom when you take a shower?
There aren't any curtains in the bathroom, I said. There aren't any windows.
You close the curtains when you get dressed at night?
Yes, I said.
He'll be back, the young one said. That kind always comes back.
The big one wouldn't let up. You have men over here a lot? Different men?
He wanted it to be my fault, just a little, some indiscretion, some provocation. Next he would start lecturing me about locks, about living alone, about safety.
I close the curtains, I said. I don't have men over. I turn out the lights. I get undressed by myself, in the dark.
The big one smirked at me, he knew about single women, and suddenly I was angry. I unbuttoned my blouse and pulled my left arm out of the sleeve and dropped the slip strap over my shoulder.
What in hell are you doing? the big one said.
I want you to believe me, I said.
There's a two-hour stopover in Barbados, or so they tell her. Rennie finds the women's washroom in the new Muzak-slick airport and changes from her heavy clothes to a cotton dress. She examines her face in the mirror, checking for signs. In fact she looks quite well, she looks normal. Her dress is a washed-out blue, her face isn't too pale, she wears only enough makeup so she won't seem peculiar, a leftover hippie or a Plymouth Brethren or something like that. This is the effect she aims for, neutrality; she needs it for her work, as she used to tell Jake. Invisibility.
Take a chance, said Jake, during one of his campaigns to alter her, what was it that time? Purple satin with rhinestone spaghetti straps. Make a statement.
Other people make statements, she said. I just write them down.
That's a cop-out, said Jake. If you've got it, flaunt it.
Which God knows you do, said Rennie.
You're putting me down again, said Jake, affable, showing his teeth, flawless except for the long canines.
You're impossible to put down, said Rennie. That's why I love you.
In the washroom there's a blow-dryer for your hands, which claims to be a protection against disease. The instructions are in French as well as English, it's made in Canada. Rennie washes her hands and dries them under the blow-dryer. She's all in favour of protection against disease.
She thinks about what's behind her, what she cancelled or didn't bother to cancel. As for the apartment, she just shut the door with its shiny new lock and walked out, since out was where she needed to be. It gets easier and easier, dishes in the sink for two weeks, three weeks, only a little mould on them, she hardly even feels guilty any more; one of these days it may be permanent.
Rennie's lucky that she can manage these sidesteps, these small absences from real life; most people can't. She's not tied down, which is an advantage. It's a good thing she's versatile, and it helps to know people, in this case Keith. Keith has recently come across to Visor from Toronto Life. He's a contact of hers, which is not the same as a friend. While she was in the hospital she decided that most of her friends were really just contacts.
I want to go somewhere warm and very far away, she said.
Try the Courtyard Cafe, he said.
No, seriously, said Rennie. My life is the pits right now. I need a tan.
Want to do The Restless Caribbean? he said. So does everyone else.
Nothing political, she said. I can do you a good Fun in the Sun, with the wine lists and the tennis courts, I know what you like.
You finked out on the last piece I wanted you to do, said Keith. Anyway, you just came back from Mexico.
That was last year, she said. Come on, we're old buddies. I need some time out.
Keith sighed and then agreed, a little too quickly. Usually he haggled more. He must have heard about the operation; maybe he even knew about Jake leaving. He had that faint sick look in his eyes, as if he wanted to give her something, charity for instance. Rennie hates charity.
It's not a total freebie, she said. It's not as if I don't produce.
Pick an island, he said. Only it has to be someplace we haven't done. How about this one? A friend of mine went there, sort of by mistake. He says it's off the beaten track.
Rennie had never heard of it. Sounds great, she said. Ordinarily she would have done some homework, but she was in too much of a hurry. This time she's flying blind.
Rennie repacks her bag, stuffing her pantyhose into an outside pocket, the one with the clock. Then she goes to the restaurant, where everything is wicker, and orders a gin and tonic. She does not look long at the distant sea, which is too blue to be believable.
The restaurant isn't full. There are a few women alone and more in clutches, and a couple of families. There are no men by themselves. Men by themselves usually go to the bar. She knows, she's learned since Jake left, that if she spends much time gazing around the room with that slightly defiant stare adopted by women alone to indicate that they don't have to be, one of the other solitaries might join her. So instead she watches her hands and the ice cubes in her glass, which despite the air conditioning are melting almost at once.
When she goes to the gate she's told the plane is late. Lugging her bag and her camera bag, she walks among the kiosk shops: small black hand-sewn dolls, cigarette boxes and mirrors encrusted with shells, necklaces made from the teeth of sharks, porcupine fish, inflated and dried. A miniature five-piece steel band, mounted on a slab of driftwood, in which the players are toads. Looking more closely, she sees that the toads are real ones that have been stuffed and varnished. A long time ago she would have bought this monstrosity and sent it to someone for a joke.
Rennie is from Griswold, Ontario. Griswold is what they call her background. Though it's less like a background, a backdroppicturesque red Victorian houses and autumn trees on a hillside in the distancethan a subground, something that can't be seen but is nevertheless there, full of gritty old rocks and buried stumps, worms and bones; nothing you'd want to go into. Those who'd lately been clamouring for roots had never seen a root up close, Rennie used to say. She had, and she'd rather be some other part of the plant.
In an earlier phase, Rennie used to tell jokes about Griswold to amuse her friends. Such as: How many people from Griswold does it take to change a lightbulb? The whole town. One to change it, ten to snoop, and the rest of them to discuss how sinful you are for wanting more light. Or: How many people from Griswold does it take to change a lightbulb? None. If the light goes out it's the will of God, and who are you to complain?
People from bigger places, Jake in particular, think that Griswold has an exotic and primitive charm. Rennie doesn't think this. Mostly she tries to avoid thinking about Griswold at all. Griswold, she hopes, is merely something she defines herself against.
Though it's not always so easy to get rid of Griswold. For instance: When Rennie saw the piece of rope on her bed, she knew what Griswold would have had to say about it. This is what happens to women like you. What can you expect, you deserve it. In Griswold everyone gets what they deserve. In Griswold everyone deserves the worst.
Reading Group Guide
1. Rennie has a series of dreams in which her grandmother complains that her hands are missing. Rennie, a writer, interprets this as dream-evidence that her grandmother is dead. What does a loss of one's hands represent? What does it mean for a writer in particular?
2. Atwood writes, "The number of things Rennie thinks ought to happen to her in foreign countries is limited, but the number of things she fears may happen is much larger." For Rennie, which type of experience proves to be more transformative?
3. "Other people make statements, I just write them down," claims Rennie. Consider the difference between observing and reporting actions as opposed to engaging in them. By observing, does one become a de facto participant?
4. In St. Antoine, Rennie is an "other" fivefold: she is single, a woman, a reporter, a white, and a Canadian. Yet each of her distinct identities frequently clash with one another. As a white Canadian, she allied with a strong majority; as a single woman, she represents a vulnerable minority. At times, however, her status as both a Canadian and a woman earns her the epithets "sweet" and naive". How do the many layers of her outsiderdom intersect? How do they reinforce or invalidate each other?
5. After her relationship with Jake, Rennie finds herself infatuated with two menDaniel and Pauleach of whom offers her an incomplete sort of relationship. What does each have to offer her? How do they complement each other?
6. The specter of the man who broke into her apartment and left a length of rope behind follows Rennie on her travels. Who is this man? What does he represent?"
7. Compare Jocasta and Lora. What insights does each offer into the nature of women's' friendships? The alliances that women form? The kinds of choices women make throughout their lives?
8. After Minnow's assassination, Rennie realizes that he asked her to write about St. Antoine "so there would be less chance of this happening to him." What control do wordsvia the media and the press, have over the course of unfolding events?
9. Consider Jocasta's and Rennie's assessments of men's and women's relationships and the new crises and anxieties that sexual equality poses. Do you agree with their perception of the situation? How, if at all, has sexual politics changed in the sixteen years since this novel was written?
10. While imprisoned, Rennie discovers that after listening to distant screams long enough, her ear tricks her brain into thinking she's hearing a party. What other means does her brain and body have of enabling her to survive her imprisonment? How does the human body cope with assaults imposed from within (cancer, disease, loneliness) as opposed to those from outside from outside (torture, prison)? Does she have more control over one than the other?
11. On the plane ride home, Rennie notes a significant change. She realizes, however, that what has changed are not the ice cubes, the people, and the world around her, but the way she notices them. How have her experiences changed her? What events in your life cause you to view everyday sights and events differently?