Posts Tagged ‘Gwethalyn Graham’


With thanks to Persephone books for the review copy

This will almost certainly be on my books of the year list – a book I couldn’t stop reading but didn’t want to finish. It’s hard to convey in a review just how lovely this book is, you may just need to read it. There is something about Gwethalyn Graham’s story-telling, the way in which she creates relationships, the emotional and upsetting nature of the divisions that she portrays which makes this novel so compelling.

I hadn’t heard of Gwethalyn Graham before Persephone re-issued this novel, a Canadian writer who published one other earlier novel before this. Earth and High Heaven was an enormous success remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-eight weeks. First published in 1944 – those first readers could not have known whether the happy ending that is implicit in the novel’s opening sentence would be replicated for the allies.

Gwethalyn Graham explores the divisions and deeply entrenched prejudices which existed in Canadian society, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser who meet and fall in love. Set in Montreal during World War Two – Graham shows us how society was divided into three distinct groups.

“Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.”

When they meet, Erica is twenty-eight, a journalist on the society pages of the Montreal Post, Marc is a few years older, waiting for his call up overseas, he is a lawyer, originally from a small town in Ontario. Erica’s father is the President of an import company started by his great grandfather, the Drakes holding a prominent position in the English Canadian society which has so little to do with the French Canadian and Jewish communities who live side by side. Marc’s father had emigrated to Canada from Austria with his wife and Marc’s older brother, he owns a planning mill in Manchester Ontario, while Marc’s brother is a doctor to remote mining communities.

At a cocktail party held in the Drake home, Marc Reiser is brought somewhat unwillingly along by René de Sevigny, a French-Canadian friend, and brother to Erica’s brother’s wife. Marc and Erica meet and are instantly drawn to each other – it’s that love at first sight kind of thing that Disney so love to portray. Erica has led a life of unthinking privilege, so when presented with the everyday prejudices that Marc encounters as a Jewish man in Canadian society, the scales fall from her eyes, and she is horrified. When she tries to introduce Marc to her father; Charles (who spends most of the party hiding in his study) she is appalled when Charles walks straight past him without so much as giving Marc eye contact. How could she have got it so wrong?

Erica is an innocent in the ways of the society in which she lives, she herself is incapable of disliking someone simply because they happen to be Jewish – and so discovering this attitude exists within the very walls of her home she is devastated. However, due to her upbringing, Erica soon recognises that she too is guilty of inherent racism, although in loving Marc and recognising how her attitudes have been shaped by her upbringing she is already more enlightened.

Erica is one of three siblings, her father is known to be rather difficult and set in his ways, but Erica and he have always enjoyed a special understanding. Erica is acknowledged by everyone to be Charles’s favourite – she brings the best out in him. So, when she is brought face to face with her father’s prejudice it is a bitter and devastating blow. Charles had raged and stomped when his son married a French-Canadian woman, but now he is very fond of her, and Charles has become his daughter-in-law’s favourite member of the family. Erica tells herself that he will come around, if only he would meet Marc – and see what he is really like. Charles can be cruel – taking every opportunity he can to tell anti-Semitic stories – calling Marc a ‘cheap Jewish lawyer.’

‘I don’t want my daughter to go through life neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, living in a kind of no man’s land where half the people you know will never accept him, and half the people he knows will never accept you. I don’t want a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives. I don’t want a son-in-law whom I’ll have to apologize for, and explain, and have to hear insulted indirectly unless I can remember to warn people off first.’

Erica’s younger sister Miriam comes home from England, although only twenty-four she has a failed marriage behind her, and two other men vying for her attentions. Miriam takes Erica’s side, she meets Marc and likes him immediately. Miriam understands the problems with their parents in a way that Erica seems unable to. She loves her sister, the one sibling never to cause their parents a moments concern, but now sees there may be no way back for them all. Erica continues to see Marc against her parent’s wishes, Marc tries to make Erica aware of the difficulties they will face, tries to get her to see that marriage between them is impossible. Erica is worn down by the pressure and stress, the barrage of Charles’s vitriol against the man she loves. She loses weight, is visibly changed, but hangs on grimly nevertheless, her belief in Marc, and the possibility of a future together is unwavering.

This is a surprisingly emotional read, and I defy anyone not to rush through it – desperate to see if the happy ending implied in that first sentence comes true. Erica is the driving force of the novel, a wonderfully sympathetic character through whose eyes we see the divisions within a society.


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