'First novel a triumph for Richards'
THE LAVENDER CHILD | SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
The thought of two men loving Rachel at the same time was so unbelievable, she laughed at the idea. When she was growing up in small town Saskatchewan, there were few choices and little time to choose. You married a man, learned to love him, and found happiness. In that order.
It didn't quite work out that way for her daughter Louise. She fell in love, found happiness, then married Gavin Protheroe. Now in her late 30s she's struggling to hold on to her youth, which was lost somewhere between six children and a responsible lifestyle.
And so different were Rachel's courting days from those of her eldest granddaughter Celia, who puts her acting career before marriage, refuses to label an evening out with a guy a "date," and contemplates becoming a single mom on day – by choice.
Through the minds of three generations, we meet a group of unique and captivating personalities who put their own bona fide spin on the definition of "family."
The Lavender Child is a year in the life of Protheroes, and the first year of baby Dion's life. Brain-damaged at birth, Dion's wit is as pale as the color of lavender, yet his sweetness and innocence as alluring as its scent. Although he doesn't develop as quickly as other babies do, he has the special power to enchant his parents, five sisters and grandparents, After his birht, Rachel is able to renew her role as a mother to Lousise, who comes to terms with approaching middle age. Gavin, in his quest for his long-lost mother, finds his role as a son, and Dion's sisters learn that happiness exists in tier own household.
In her first novel, Saskatchewan writer Harriet Richards sails, smoothly along many streams of consciousness, taking you deep inside her characters' minds. We decode the intricacies of each personality – their fears, desires, weaknesses, regrets – by following the dreamy flow of their thoughts.
Stream of consciousness is not an easy technique, but Richards excels at it. Readers will be amazed at her ability to convey the discomfort of an aging grandmother as convincingly as she depicts the wonder and excitement of a developmentally-delayed nine-moth-old boy discovering the world.
Her skill is most impressive in one passage that takes you inside Dion's thoughts. After struggling with a blanket in his crib, he becomes stuck in an uncomfortable position and cries for help. Big sister Gale comes to the rescue. He look sup at her face, with its "chatty" freckles he loves dearly. "He was happy, but it took time for his body to know that – his body still made mad noises."
Dreams also play an important role in the novel, and not just those of the REM variety. Richards concentrates on the roles dreams play in our conscious lives as well as in our sleep. Louise's father Harold lives in a dreamworld as the effects of Alzheimer's take hold of his mind. Her neighbor, Myrtle Murray, believes in her own clairvoyance and depends on dreams for insight. And during the excruciating trauma of childbirth, Louise floats into an out-of-body experience, before she realizes that annoying, relentless screaming voice is her own.
It was a dream which launched Richards' writing career several years ago. She originally worked as a visual artist (one of her early paintings appears on the book's cover). After a dry spell, she wrote a short story based on a recurrent dream that "refused to translate into a painting." Since then, her work has appeared in such arts publications as the Antigonish Review and Planet: The Welsh Internationalist.
Richards was born in Toronto, one of seven children. She moved to Saskatoon in 1960 and now lives just west of the cit in Asquith with her husband and four children.
Proud Prairie dwellers will appreciate numerous references to the province's natural beauty. Richards' narrative shows you combines in late September, the flocks of birds in spring sunsets and Saskatchewan winters "that begin in September and last until April" (okay, not this winter).
The Lavender Child is tender, confidant and clever. As Richards' first novel, it is a triumph.
— Sue Bachner
'Richards writes with conviction and wit, and with a pleasingly deft sense of timing'
THE LAVENDER CHILD | PLANET, THE WELSH INTERNATIONALIST
The Lavender Child is a novel about families. It is also a novel about what does, or should, constitute family values. Set in Saskatchewan, Canada and based around a year in the life of the Protheroes, father, mother and five daughters, it offers an unusual blend of dream, myth, realism and good old-fashioned moral rectitude.
The birth of Dion, sixth child, first son, and brain-damaged at birth is a focus for moral and emotional growth in all the main characters. His development over the year, from a scarcely human inertia to a tolerable degree of physical control and emotional mutuality, provides the coping stone upon which all other modes of development rest. Louise, mother and sometime hippie, passes through despair to a realization of the life-giving force of continuity and of community. Gavin, husband, father, traditional breadwinner, gives up his fantasy of reconciliation with the mother who abandoned him, for the more solid foundation of present familial love and responsibility. The various daughters at their different stages and ages each find, separately and together, a surer sense of their own identity and life-direction.
Harriet Richards writes with conviction and wit, and with a pleasingly deft sense of timing:
“There’s only one thing in this world 1 do on my knees”, (declared Twvia). Gavin said, “Well now, I expect your husband appreciates that.” She looked at Gavin kind of funny. He said, “You praying so much.”
She employs a variety of voices, which span the sexes and the generations in a way which is often convincing. Teenage Celia’s responses to the handsomest boy in her High School class has the ring of truth:
His lips fascinated her as they talked. She’d never actually wanted to grab a guy before and kiss his mouth as bad as she wanted to kiss Jason right then. But it was like he read her mind, and he laughed.
Louise’s mother Rachael, out at her farm alone while her deranged husband Harold has a spell in hospital, captures the reader’s imagination in her contemplation of the long vista of the past:
Eighteen years earlier Rachael had bought light rose paint from the Co-op... She looked now proudly, then regretfully, for the paint had baked in sun and worn in rain, peeled away in spots to bare wood and even if she had the energy to hold a paintbrush, wood like that couldn’t tolerate paint.
My house has turned to old toothpicks... The moon was barely over the half, rising in the east, white in the spring blue.
Indeed, it is in this section that the novel comes most wholly alive, and attracts to itself a pace and a poise that were somehow previously lacking. This lack resides perhaps in two interrelated aspects. The first is a certain scarcity of memorable characterization. The second devolves from a combination of diversity of modes and themes, and the sheer proliferation of narrational focus. In seeking to present “growth” or “reconciliation” or “love” in terms not only of a rather large family, but also in relation to the wider community, the drive and direction of the tale are sometimes lost.
There is a comparable confusion in what might be called the Celtic connexion. Celticism — here specifically related to Welsh ancestry — is associated at once with mysticism, vision, and roots. Gavin “believed he possessed the authentic Celtic soul, the mystic shade that travels unaided at night.” And yet, the reader is left uncertain as to the function of this strand of narrative, except that somehow the “mystic” or the “Celtic” is an element of great importance in the living of life.
Despite these reservations, The Lavender Child is a novel with much to commend it. If the values it puts forward are at heart rather conservative, its central message is one, ultimately, of optimism: what will survive of us is love. This is not a new message, but is perhaps a necessary one. It attracts to itself, as the novel progresses, an increasing resonance. — Clare Morgan
'Poignant, and ironically funny'
WAITING FOR THE PIANO TUNER TO DIE | THE GLOBE AND MAIL
If you believe life is little more than a series of disappointments followed by death, then the 10 stylistically dazzling stories in Harriet Richards’s Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die may well convince you to change your tune.
A Toronto native who migrated west during the sixties, Richards snagged Saskatchewan’s Best First Book Award (1997) with The Lavender Child, a stylistically dazzling novel. Given the exquisite quality of the writing on display in her current work, similar honours would seem to have her name written all over them.
Each entry, carefully crafted and beautifully executed, explores the moods and minds of memorable characters who suffer the slings and sorrows of mundane misfortune. Richards, at her best when she enters psychological terrain, maps psychic contours with chilling accuracy and eerie pulchritude.
Rosa Velos is one such character in a story that itself seems torn in two by ethical ambiguity. Can evil bloom in the mind of an eight-year-old who may or may not be guilty of drowning her best friend? Whose recollections are right? Whose are merely confabulation? It’s a keen distinction the author reluctantly examines.
Effortlessly moving through territory dominated by disquietude and distress in / Can’t See It, Richards creates a luminous portrait of a chain-smoking grandmother. Alma, who refuses to relinquish her daughter’s eight-year-old. “She is my kid,” insists Prue, yet again proclaiming that she, her fiance and her kid will return to Red Deer, where the girl will “go to movies and play in the park and have a dishwasher and a car.” Alma, briefly reflecting that it’s a stupid thing to say (while simultaneously realizing that everything’s becoming stupid, anyway), deadpans: “She’s only eight, Prue. She can’t drive a car.”
It is the collection’s closer, A Wonderful Dancer, that really delivers the knock-out punch. Its stunning economy and crisp austerity rival poetry’s compressed intensity as Richards paints an unforgettably rich portrait imbued with dignity and lyrical grace.
It recalls a love affair between a pair of captivating seniors, viewed through the eyes of the inamorata’s daughter, the self-deprecating Clarice. Early on, Clarice observes that her mother, “a much younger woman than she should have been, “possessed a “sweet kind of vanity which she was very aware of and tried to disguise.” Not surprisingly, among the shadows of this ludic narrative circumscribing love, need and greed, lurks a joy-spoiler non pareil; Magdalen, the daughter of the dapper piano tuner, waiting for her meal-ticket to die.
A piano tuner adjusts the instrument’s strings to ensure it sounds harmonious. The same might be said of Richards’s talent for creating organically unified short fictions of the first order.
— Judith Fitzgerald
'Richards' words quietly move little mountains.'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | SASKBOOK REVIEWS, 2013
Harriet Richards’ The Pious Robber presents its readers with eight stories that will mesmerize, disturb, and delight. Every story in the collection strikes to the bone, and is brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized. One will be tempted to read the collection in one sitting, though the depth of the stories provides much fruit for multiple readings, honest reflection, and some animated and imaginative discussion. Richards is blessed with an unimpeachable understanding of illness, childhood, family, loss, and human psychology. Her narration is cool and detached, her dialogue crisp and seamless. This work is weighty and balanced: highly observant, darkly comic, and always fascinating.
This collection especially shines where it examines human frailty within the accepted boundaries that mark convention, produce (unwanted?) self-knowledge, and touch that squishy place in our psyche where we are most vulnerable and recriminatory. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in the stories “Tangible Reminders” and “Sometimes it Seemed”. These seem to be the moments in which intelligent people must work with the seemingly harmless social and cultural excesses that make day-to-day life a minefield. In “Tangible Reminders”, the main character, Alicia, looks through old items, attempting to re-order her new life. As she does this, she reflects upon her recent divorce and several encounters with her ex-husband, his lover, and a neurotic co-worker. All of these encounters, like that with the sandwich-maker in “Sometimes it Seemed”, are rife with comic inevitability and a wry sense that some people seem to be built for the purpose of withstanding grief, loneliness, the lack of consideration of others, and the accompanying sense of dread.
The stories in this collection that focus on the daily lives of its characters are as poignant as snapshots, as cardiograms of human trauma and feeling. However, there are also stories that deal with the more concrete loss of loved ones: to murder, in “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, and to inescapable circumstance, in “The Blue She Needed”. The losses in these stories are devastating and unforgettable. Both stories are narrated by survivors who knew the lost ones. In “The Blue She Needed”, the narrator is a benevolent friend, with an astute and intelligent eye for those differences in human behaviour that, in retrospect, merit closer scrutiny. Again, Richards’s knack for observing her characters makes this a rich and touching story. In “In the Direction of the Three Sisters”, a mysterious narrator recalls the actions of three sisters, each of whom exercises her own unique influence over tragic events. The narrator in this story is an outspoken outsider suffering from an illness, lending the story a sinister feeling that it is being overheard, witnessed in the telling.
While the collection, as a whole, is very strong, the highlight is undoubtedly “The Pious Robber”, the title story. In this story, the landscape plays a central role. It exercises a mysterious power over the imaginations of two young girls and the unfortunate drifter who stumbles into their world. It is utterly sublime.
This collection should not be missed.
'At her best, Richards displays an admirable tendency to underplay her hand...'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | NATIONAL POST
The cover images on The Pious Robber, Harriet Richards’ third book of fiction, and The Modern World (Oberon Press, 112 pp; $19.95), Cassie Beecham’s debut, are strikingly similar. The former is a photograph and the latter a painting, but both employ muted colour schemes of sickly browns, greens, and yellows, and feature a woman, seated alone and looking away. Both evoke stasis and contemplation, appearing at once recondite and sober. But the quietude and classicism of the images belie the raw emotion and creeping unease that pervade the work of both authors.
The sombre presentation is arguably more appropriate in Richards’ case: The eight stories in The Pious Robber are serious in tone and subject, and written in a style that marries precise language to occasional flourishes of lyricism. Innocence and experience are Richards’ twin subjects; the distance she examines is that between the naivety of childhood and the relative understanding of adulthood, but she is equally adept at dramatizing the ways in which grown women remain blind to their circumstances until life forces the scales to fall from their eyes.
In “Tangible Reminders,” for example, Alicia is clearing out the remnants of her life together with Neville, who had been carrying on an affair with a “simpering retro-dressing, pre-Raphaelite-ish, dyed-auburn-haired, underweight girl” half his age. Alicia has smelled Neville’s lover on his clothes and skin, but her suspicions are not confirmed until she stumbles across the unlikely couple huddled together in a food court. The moment is typical of Richards’ strengths. Although Alicia insists the encounter is “not a scene of fine drama, one that might have purged [her] disgust and rage,” the author cannily uses the quotidian setting and mundane circumstances to increase the tension. When Neville’s young paramour acknowledges Alicia’s infertility by referring to “the, um, no baby thing,” the older woman’s whispered response — “Are you out of your f—ing mind?” — carries markedly greater impact than a retreat into overheated histrionics ever could.
At her best, Richards displays an admirable tendency to underplay her hand, resulting in an increased emotional payoff for the reader. The stories falter when the author abandons this instinct and gives in to the temptation to provide too much in the way of description or information. In “Tangible Reminders,” Richards writes, “The room came into soft focus under the faint illumination of street lights forced through venetian blinds. She shivered under the too-thin comforter, provoking an agonizing charley horse in her right calf.” The pile-up of adjectives in these sentences is de trop, and is it really necessary to emphasize for a reader that a charley horse is painful?
The impulse to provide too much, like a zealous dinner host forcing food on her already-stuffed guests, is most pronounced in “A Great Wrong” and the collection’s title story, both of which end on notes that are overly explicit. In the first case, 15-year-old Ava is raped by her malcontent boyfriend, who subsequently goes missing. This story exemplifies Richards’ deft use of point-of-view, when the third-person limited perspective shifts midway from that of Ava and her brothers to a sympathetic police officer investigating the young delinquent’s disappearance. A transition that would seem jarring in lesser hands is effected here with great grace and fluidity.
However, the letter that Ava, now in her 60s, sends to the retired policeman at the story’s close, detailing what happened to her assailant, is an ineffective means of exposition, and provides specifics about matters that would have been better left implied. Similarly, the final scenes in “The Pious Robber,” a story about two young rural girls who befriend a drifter with a shadowy past, become too clear about the man’s history and crimes, paradoxically denuding the sense of creeping discomfort that has been building throughout the story. In fiction, as in life, things are much more disconcerting if they are not allowed definitive resolutions.
— Stephen Beattie
'Lyrical and affecting, there is nothing precious in this collection.'
WAITING FOR THE PIANO TUNER TO DIE | PLANET, THE WELSH INTERNATIONALIST
There are arresting and dramatic developments in Canadian writer Harriet Richards’ short story collection,Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die, but the main pleasure lies in the language, which scrupulously avoids cliches while offering continual surprises. Many sentences infuse the striking landscape of the Canadian mid-west and its fanning communities with an undercurrent of almost commonplace cruelty or horror. Casual violence is a staple of childhood — and few contemporary writers have rendered that dimension of human experience more unsettlingly than Richards, as in this sentence from “Rosa Velos”: “But Emily picks up a mouse between her thumb and pointed fingers, her hand delicate, and rolls its head as she would an eraser on the end of a pencil until it pops.”
The ten stories shift from a focus on children in the first half to adults in the second, yet Richards maintains a consistent tone and style throughout, even in stories — such as “Marine and Jonothan, Plus Carmelita’s Journal” — that are experimental in form. When Richards treats adult characters and themes in the last six stories of this collection, the amalgam of beauty and cruelty remains, especially with the arrival of a sexual dimension. Desire prefigures disaster: characters can’t control the sexual urge even as they intellectually register the risks — or the inevitable catastrophes — that follow. Relationships are evoked in the language of battle, of skirmishes and rearguard actions: those that begin well rarely end well. In describing her marriage, the narrator of “Requiem” observes: “I’m trying to persuade myself that 1 married him for the challenge, a gauntlet thrown, a classic match; study the opponent, feint and counter, attack and retreat over and over again. Of course, later on it was a brawl.”
Though Richards’ characters are tuned into contemporary Canadian (or more generally Western) culture, they arc typically products of isolated fanning communities. One unusual aspect of the stories is that they follow characters through many decades — yet while several feel like mini-novels in their chronological scope, they manage not to seem at all thin. Many stories are about loss: the death of a mother, the breakup of relationships. There is a prolusion of damaged characters: Angus (in “Emerald and Angus”) suffers from retardation, a son (in “For a Boy”) has been emotionally abused by his father. Many stories address the ambivalent condition of women motivated by sexual desire but fiercely protective of their autonomy. “Emerald and Angus” and “A Wonderful Dancer” — two stories that feature adult women as main characters — are true masterpieces of short fiction.
While lyrical and affecting, there is nothing precious, nothing sentimental in this collection. It’s edgy fiction grounded in the flat and vast Saskatchewan landscape: the environments are expansive but the stories dig deep. Harriet Richards’ first novel. The Lavender Child, published by Thistledown Press in 1997, received the Saskatchewan Best First Book Award. Waiting for the Piano Tuner to Die is an accomplished successor.
'Quiet, thoughtful stories will shake readers.'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | SASKATOON STAR PHOENIX
In the blandly titled Sometimes it Seemed, the second story in Saskatoon writer Harriet Richards's latest collection, the story opens with that very phrase: "Sometimes it seemed that every day was the same thing." It then goes on briefly to tell of a crisis the main character, Mary Jane, is experiencing.
"A garden variety depression is a lovely phrase. It could be sold in salt-glazed wood-fired pots at farmers markets, bought by bewildered customers either for gifts or for themselves, to set on previously cheerless windowsills." This tongue-in-cheek nod to a case of depression is easily breezed past, just as the title is, and the writing that so casually acknowledges such a crisis in a woman's life is the achievement at the heart of these highly readable stories, Richards's third collection, The Pious Robber.
Nothing in the story is solved. The woman continues through the murk, bewildered by her own inabilities to grasp simple things. No one is robbed, dies or is even threatened, but to the woman, whose story this is, the crisis is real, and the humane way in which Richards treats her character, solving nothing but acknowledging all, is at the heart of compassionate care.
Richards shows this same quiet care in the opening story, Bagatelle, in which a woman who can't have a child listens on the long-distance phone to an old friend, a woman who is pregnant with the child of a man with whom she is in and out of love. Olivia, who can't conceive, listens as her beautiful friend complains again of "listening to some guy's nonsense and putting up with his clever, rank insults in hopes that he would stay with her, and her alone. That he would not wander again into another woman's bed." Ah yes, garden variety immaturity and adultery, but it still hurts, and someone is still there to listen.
The stories Tangible Reminders and One Day are similarly devoid of drama but quietly caring. The woman in the first story is full of "nameless worry," her sleep "dream-bothered and restless." Her husband has left her and no one notices her anymore. In One Day, the reader might almost miss that the main character, April, lost her sister to suicide. April is worried about her brother, about the rest of the family, about cleaning up after her elderly mother. People go on, quietly bearing their burdens.
The gentle listening that Richards brings to these quiet, understated stories becomes that much more vivid, then, when she takes on three dramatic tales, including that of the collection's title.
Sheer childhood innocence seems to protect two young girls on summer vacation as they help a hurt and seriously deranged robber to food, drink and protection from the elements. While posters in local stores warn of a criminal on the loose, the focus of the story is the girls' summer project, their own little pet to feed, their own little dress-up game.
And in the remarkable A Great Wrong, another innocent, this one a 15-year-old girl, is raped by a boy she liked and trusted. When the boy goes missing the RCMP comes calling, but the family has little to tell. A letter written 60 years later is both so sure of its rightness in dealing with the problem, but also so generous in spirit to those who helped deal with the wrong, that readers can only gasp their astonishment as they read over the retired police officer's shoulder.
Suicide, murder, rape, death by fire, alcoholism, mental illness, adultery, depression: This is the stuff of life in the land of Richards's stories, but humane kindness coupled with a bit of common sense and a few good personal boundaries is the coinage of the realm. Beneath story titles that wave no banners, Richards's words quietly move little mountains.
— Bill Robertson
'An unwavering look at the darker side of humanity in these very readable stories.'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | HERIZONS MAGAZINE SPRING 2014
It is said that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover; but with The Pious Robber, it is entirely appropriate. The murky sepia photograph of a seated woman, featured blurred, is slightly unsettling. So, too, are many of the stories in Harriet Richards' collection. Misfortune and tragedy circle the characters like carrion birds. They struggle with infertility, depression and addiction; they commit infidelity, murder and suicide. In Richards' capable hands, however, these cheerless stories make for compelling reading, "Sometimes it Seemed" and the title story, "The Pious Robber" are standouts.
For Mary Jane, the narrator of "Sometimes it Seemed," life is a burden, something to endured. Her aging appearance bothers her, she sometimes thinks she hates her husband, and she is not pleased about having to return to the workforce, In her current state of mind, even a trip to the mall proves to be an ordeal. Still, she dismisses how she feels as "a garden variety depression" — specifically, "a marigold or begonia or geranium of a depression."
In "The Pious Robber," a summer holiday at the lake takes an unexpected turn for 11-year-old sisters Bethany and Mouse when they discover an injured criminal. Even though it becomes apparent that the criminal has a mental health condition, the girls make a game of it, hiding him in a boathouse and supplying him with food. But, as the days go by and the novelty wears thin, the sisters must find a solution to the problem he has become.
Harriet Richards takes an unwavering look at the darker side of humanity in these very readable stories. Some will surprise, a few will disturb. The essence of this collection is summed up perfectly in the words of one of her characters: "We bang around all of us together on this earth, sometimes being useful, sometimes making graceful gestures, but generally unaware in any meaningful way of anybody who is not ourselves."
- Sylvia Santiago