Ann-Marie MacDonald is on my short list of “must read” Canadian authors and I was really happy to see another novel by her. Mary Rose MacKinnon and her partner, Hilary, have a young son and a toddler named Maggie. Mary Rose used to write children’s books and put her career on hold to care for the children, while Hilary pursues hers in theater. The story is told from Mary Rose’s point of view and involves the exploration of her relationship with her partner, her relationship with her parents (Canadian military father and a mother of Lebanese origin) who do not accept her homosexuality when she comes out to them, her ethnic and sexual identity, her insecurities as a mother.
She is also plagued by phobias and panic attacks, strange childhood memories, and wearing the same name as her stillborn baby sister, usually referred to as “other Mary Rose”. My mother had two sisters with the same first name, but they were both alive. Weird but in a different way.
And Mister (aka Mary Rose, “MR”) also carries shame, and insecurity and a blooming kind of anger that can surface at the oddest times. She is afraid that one day she will hurt the children.
She never knows when it might strike. The rage. And when it does, she loses her grip on herself—literally. At times, she could swear she sees another self—shiny black phantom, faceless, as though clad in a bodysuit—leaping out of her, pulling the rest of her in its wake. Over the edge.
If someone had injected her with a potion labelled Mr. Hyde, it would make sense, for the rage always feels like it comes out of nowhere. It is only afterwards that she recognizes that whole sections of her brain have been shut down, whole circuit boards. For example, she loses language. Gone. It is akin to what used to happen to her in the bad old days when a strip of the world would cease to exist in her visual field, just as though it had never been. Or, equally disconcerting, when a giant yellow orb would appear right in front of her, blocking her view—it was like trying to see around a big yellow sun. “Incomplete classic migraine,” said the ophtalmologist. “Panic attack,” said Dr. Judy, and asked if she would like to “see someone.” But Mary Rose knew they were really evil spells—she needed a sorcerer, not a shrink.
Those times are like dreams or the pain of surgery however—they get filed separately. She has undone many evil spells since becoming a mother—even so, there is still a spinning wheel somewhere in the kingdom and she never knows when she might prick her finger…
There is nothing wrong with her life. She has a loving partner and two healthy, beautiful children. She has put money into education funds, she has put photos into albums. She can make pancakes without a recipe, she knows where the IKEA Allen key is, and has memorized the international laundry symbols—she has not Polaroided her shoes, she has her inner Martha Stewart in check. That is a slippery slope; you start making your own ricotta, next thing you know you’re in jail.
So Mary Rose is striving to understand what drives her as well as to make sense of her life. Her coping strategies might be a little strange and she does have obsessions such as her forever sore arm and her mother’s battles with postpartum depression.
The beauty of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s writing is how it brings to life the details of the everyday lives of her characters. She also describes very well the complexity of the negotiations of multiple identities that people take on in the contemporary world.
MacDonald, Ann-Marie. Adult Onset. Vintage Canada, 2015.