Restlessness – Aritha Van Herk (1998, Red Deer College Press, Red Deer)

Can you equate death and love?

In Aritha Van Herk’s Restlessness, we meet Dorcas, a professional traveller (she works as a courier), a woman who has been everywhere in the world, a woman who has no home.  Sure, she makes her base in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but she is not at home there – despite her love for the city, and for the Chinooks and the landmarks that define it.  (Van Herk is interested in Calgary’s past; her book Mavericks:  An Incorrigible History of Alberta is a good tie-in).  Exhausted by the constant movement, desperate for solace, the courier holes herself up in the Palliser Hotel (our grand old dame of hotels here in Cowtown) and awaits a hired assassin to kill/love? her.

Of course, the guy she’s chosen to do her in is interested in her backstory, so the bulk of the book is a travelogue, full of observations of place and time and history.  It’s beautifully written, in the kind of no-holds-barred descriptive prose my Can Lit profs went gaga over when I was attending university:

The suitcase disease has grown in me with age.

I turn into leather shops and measure the sides of bags as if I need something special to transport a french horn, a violin of clothes.  I prod shoe pouches to see whether they can stretch to hold boots.  I insist on certain zipper weights, expandable side pockets, inner belts that will compress clothes to their thinnest fiber.  I buy more suitcases than I can ever carry, have left behind more valises than I will ever need.

They were a tax deduction.

The whole book is like that – gorgeous and sumptuous and self-aware.  It’s the kind of book that knows it’s a book, and you can’t just sit back and let this story unfold – it requires constant engagement on your part.  You’re not sure if you can take anything at face value, you feel like you have to peel it all away, layer by layer, and constantly seek the deeper meaning beneath.  (I am still convinced that the assassin’s name, Derrick Atman, was not a random selection, but try as I might, I’m not getting it).  If you’re up for some literary dissection, then give this one a go; if not, you may find yourself feeling a bit…restless.

Chinook arch over the city of Calgary, Alberta...

Chinook arch over the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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