With the bracing first paragraph of My Face in the Light, I anticipated an intense and darkly surreal tale that would fit on the shelf between Ottessa Moshfegh and Mona Awad: “My mother is an artist and I am a liar. Or, if I scratch the surface, my mother is a sick woman and I am an actress. How different is that from saying my mother is a sick woman and I am a liar? My mother will not act and I have given up on art.”
For the follow-up to her 2011 debut novel, Various Positions, Martha Schabas traces the uncertain steps of Justine Weiss. A singular stage performer with a prominent forehead scar—“spanning the middle of my head like the long lips of a whale,” she explains, it’s a defining feature she’s profoundly ambivalent about—Justine’s on the cusp of thirty and beginning to act out.
For this deeply introspective novel, Schabas exhibits a nominal interest in intricate or breakneck plotting.
Basically, in 2011 Justine travels to London, works a couple of shifts, exchanges words with a few people, and considers the return home to Toronto. Schabas introduces Max, a stranger Justine chats to at Gatwick airport. He offers her a job in exchange for a London apartment. Turns out, he owns a building with a strip club in the basement as well as a hostess bar where men converse with women who are paid to foster conversion and faux-intimacy. Never at a loss for words, Justine calls the business a “kind of…soft-core grift.” She quits almost immediately.
Subsequent settings primarily function as sites for Justine to meet people (who act as aids to her psychological journey) and for her to explore while the narrative captures free-form recollections that include Justine’s accident; her intense and volatile relationship with her mother, Rachel, a respected painter (she of the “operatic moods” and the maternal technique that involves “tidy offering[s]of kindness and guilt”); and her affable husband Elias, who is baffled and then annoyed with his wife’s erratic behaviour.
“Ambivalent” describes Justine’s relationship to acting as well. In short, she needs resolution. Justine had imagined travel as revelatory but quickly learns there’s “no great moment of reckoning.” Further, having pulled on a thread, she senses other seams would come loose.
Loosening, in Justine’s case, often entails sinuous observations about the conflicted nature of her relationships (of her sister-in-law, for instance: “This was why Anna didn’t like me. Or at least partially why. And I couldn’t hold it against her, really, because she disliked me for all the reasons that made me frequently dislike myself. It was a strange phenomenon because, for all its unpleasantness, I couldn’t help but admire her astuteness, having homed in so accurately on my worst characteristics”).
From time to time, Justine shares quirks with Lena Dunham’s Hannah in Girls; they’re idiosyncratic but also grating in an “Enough about me, now what about me?” way. Schabas writes delectably, so Justine’s neurotic mental verbosity is always interesting and stylishly expressed.
(To reiterate, Schabas depicts Justine’s narration as emphatically introspective: “A squirrel with spikes of silver fur crossed the overgrown garden at the end of our yard. It had an acorn in its mouth, and as I watched the lean creature tear up the ground with a rapt, and slightly horrifying, aggression, I felt a fleeting affinity for this inanimate thing. Buried deep under a soil with no means of resistance. Subject to the squirrel’s appetite or memory.” Any reader craving straightforward or eventful plotting may feel underserved: “Our home had been built to facilitate production, yet the last thing I felt capable of being inside it was productive. I might have argued that my inactivity was a form of forgetfulness because, during those long winter afternoons, I couldn’t remember what I used to do when I had time to myself, or how or when or why I’d last felt focused or industrious.”)
As Justine realizes “how terrible [she]was at being happy” and “the sobering sting of [her]own smallness” while sifting through the past and continuing on a fitful (because murkily defined) quest, the tale steers toward the illness of Justine’s mother and Justine’s adult haplessness as a daughter and caregiver.
If catharsis isn’t exactly secured—“I just came here to do whatever the fuck it is I’m doing now,” Justine informs her husband—it’s in sight at least as My Face in the Light winds down. Justine’s thirtieth will pass and the “serious yet undefinable thing” plaguing her will persist for the time being, as Justine resigns herself to the Byzantine complications of adult relationships.
—From CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022)
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