The Globe and Mail review
T. F. RIGELHOF
Published Saturday, Sep. 18, 2004 12:00AM EDT
By Catherine Bush
McClelland & Stewart,
352 pages, $32.99
Catherine Bush’s third novel, Claire’s Head, is an emotionally compelling and intellectually enthralling love story that is as much of our world as an MRI brain scan and as timeless as the Buddha. Brilliantly conceived and executed, it amply confirms what readers of her earlier fiction have suspected, and what Barbara Gowdy succinctly asserts on the dust jacket: Catherine Bush is not only “clear, humane, gripping and unfailingly intelligent,” but also “one of our finest writers.”
Rachel Barber is a wayward, walking headache — literally and figuratively. Chronic migraines have so discombobulated her that she can’t hold down a full-time job or maintain an intimate relationship with a man or raise her daughter as a single parent. When Rachel (who makes ends barely meet as a freelance medical journalist) disappears after visiting the Montreal Neurological Institute to interview researchers studying serotonin deficiencies as the cause of migraines, it’s up to Rachel’s younger sister, Allison, to continue making a home for Rachel’s daughter Star, and for Claire, the youngest of the three sisters, either to find Rachel or to discover what has happened to her.
Claire’s Head is a strange, complex, breathtaking double journey outward to various parts of an all-too-human world — downtown Toronto, Lower Manhattan’s East Village, Montreal, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, a Tuscan health spa, Las Vegas, Mexico — and inward through different parts of Claire’s own multilayered mind.
Rachel, Allison and Claire Barber are third-generation migraineurs. As girls, they had their mother and grandmother as models of how to live and not live with chronic neurological pain. As adults, they’ve absorbed different lessons and followed distinct and unusual paths which have diverged sharply since the death of their parents in a freak accident. Allison is the least troubled, the most domestic, with a husband and children of her own and such nurturing affinity for mammalian life that she works with the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo.
Claire is the tidy, systematic, controlled one. A cartographer working for the city of Toronto, she maps changes in its wetlands as carefully and cautiously as Stefan, her partner, maps cancer cells. For Claire, mapping “is a way to give the world order, to hold back the riot of sensory signals . . . to bring a little more clarity and form” to chaos. With an uncanny ability to measure the precise dimensions of every space she occupies, which acts almost as an instinct, and the training “to recognize the difference between a line of five thousandths and one of seven thousandths of a centimetre,” Claire is highly sensitive and peculiarly responsive. As she searches for the missing Rachel, Claire forces herself to work against self-interest and put herself in all the places that are most likely to set off acute reactions.
Before Claire sets out from the cocoon she and Stefan are building in the west end of downtown Toronto, her pain is mostly potential, more feared than experienced. She is extremely cautious in all her choices, from the smaller ones of what to eat and which pill to take next out of the pharmacopoeia in her handbag (Zomig, Imitrex, Tylenol 3s, 292s, Epival, Elavil, Sandomigran) to the largest question looming over her life: Does she or doesn’t she stop taking her meds and have a child with Stefan? “This me you love and want to have a baby with, this is me on drugs,” she tells him. When he responds, “Have you ever thought that maybe you think about your headaches too much and possibly that makes them worse?” she hears him asking her to be less conscious of the world, of herself. That, in the circumstances, is impossible.
Travelling out of their safe world and into hazardous ones where Rachel has been sighted (the Las Vegas Strip is particularly skewed and risky), Claire becomes increasingly incautious. Jettisoning her job, jeopardizing her relationship, she takes train, plane and automobile trips that put her into proximity with perfumed people, newspaper ink, smoke, alcohol, conditioned air, new carpets, jet fuels, car exhausts, bleach, disinfectants, dry-cleaning fluids, onions, fluorescent lights and dozens of other “triggers” for her headaches. It could be worse. Along the way, one of Rachel’s ex-lovers becomes a travelling companion and he’s a massage therapist who understands her pain at levels Stefan cannot reach. As Claire comes to terms with increasingly complex situations, she’s forced into particularly intense encounters with pain, including a car ride from hell.
Few writers evoke nasty sensations and negative atmospheres as accurately and economically as Catherine Bush, and it’s to her immense credit that she does not cheat her characters or her readers and use pain as a jagged big symbol. In Claire’s Head, suffering is a fact of life that is as much a mystery to be meditated upon Buddha-like as a problem to be solved. Claire discovers, as Siddhartha Gautama did, that this mystery contains within it possibilities that can move a person beyond pettiness and expediency to true havens of peace within oneself and within the world.
Catherine Bush is unapologetically Yale-educated and well-read. Oliver Sacks is one of those she has studied thoroughly and deeply. Proust is another. Both inspire her, but Sacks’s classic, Migraine, is the more obvious influence, with its thesis that the types of headache Rachel and Claire suffer aren’t linear but chaotic, irreducible to straightforward patterns of cause and effect, the product of gradual buildups in their systems until they collapse.
Proust is the undercurrent that surfaces and washes over in the pages of a pain diary that Rachel hides (and Claire finds and reads), a sustained piece of writing as exact and exacting in its articulation of the processes at work in an obsession as anything any reader is likely to find anywhere this season. Her characters might be as gloomy as the more anxiety-prone ones in Proust, but they aren’t doom-laden: There’s more buoyancy in Catherine Bush, a greater sense of the inclusivity of love and consequently the possibility for growth, change and redemption. At root, she’s as open-hearted and even-handed as the wise old gambler in that classic Kenny Rogers song as she prompts her protagonists to learn when to hold, when to fold, when to walk away and when to run.
Because her own spirit seems most closely attuned to her runaways, who do whatever they can to avoid being sitting ducks, Claire’s Head, like Minus Time (1994) and The Rules of Engagement (2000), is fast-paced, full of small but memorable incidents, cinematic in a European manner, reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni and Lina Wertmuller. Wertmuller? Catherine Bush does have a sense of humour, but it turns on incongruities and is very surreal. She is as attuned to oddity and as sly, subtle, brainy and deadpan as Wertmuller or Barbara Gowdy or, come to that, Thomas Mann.
Contributing reviewer T. F. Rigelhof considers himself very fortunate to have been MRIed and treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute. His most recent book is Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief.
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