Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

February

by Lisa Moore

“Luminous . . . Moore offers us, elegantly, exultantly, the very consciousness of her characters. In this way, she does more than make us feel for them. She makes us feel what they feel, which is, I think, the point of literature and maybe even the point of being human.” —The Globe and Mail

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date February 09, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7070-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date February 03, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9790-0
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

February is Lisa Moore’s heart-stopping follow-up to her debut novel, Alligator, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Caribbean and Canadian region. Propelled by a local tragedy, in which an oil rig sinks in a violent storm off the coast of Newfoundland, February follows the life of Helen O’Mara, widowed by the accident, as she continuously spirals from the present day back to that devastating and transformative winter that persists in her mind and heart.

After overcoming the hardships of raising four children into adulthood as a single parent, Helen’s strength and calculated positivity fool everyone into believing that she’s pushed through the paralyzing grief of losing her spouse. But in private, Helen has obsessively maintained a powerful connection to her deceased husband.

When Helen’s son, John, unexpectedly returns home with life-changing news, her secret world is irrevocably shaken, and Helen is quickly forced to come to terms with her inability to lay the past to rest.

Lisa Moore’s talent for rendering the precise details of her characters’ physical and emotional worlds makes for an unforgettable glimpse into the complex love and cauterizing grief that run through all of our lives. With February, Moore tenderly investigates how memory knits together the past and present, and pinpoints the very human need to always imagine a future, no matter how fragile.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Eloquently written . . . Moore has great strengths as a writer, chiefly in her powers of description. . . . [In February she] provides vivid, cinematic snapshots of family life . . . [and] a woman’s return from the long exile of her grief.” —Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review

“Lisa Moore’s artfully fragmented narrative movingly reflects Helen’s shattered psyche. But like a ray of wintry sunshine piercing the ocean fog, the novel’s conclusion holds out hope that frozen hearts can thaw and even made-up minds can be changed.” —Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

“[An] extraordinary, unusually philosophical and human novel.” —The Irish Times

“Assured . . . [with] supple, graceful prose . . . Moore’s firm grip and fine craft make something special from this novel of disaster and its aftermath.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (UK)

“Glowing . . . Elegant . . . It has been a joy indeed to discover Lisa Moore.” —Gabriel Weston, The Telegraph (UK)

“[Moore] turns a sad story simply told into a minor-key triumph. . . . A novel which takes a moment of catastrophe and focuses not on the moment itself but on all the moments that surround it; that are altered, subtly or dramatically, by it. . . . A novel that stands as a candid atomization of mourning in all its endlessness and banality.” —Sarah Crown, The Guardian

“Quietly reflective . . . Evocative . . . Expressive.” —Publishers Weekly

“Moore offers us, elegantly, exultantly, the very consciousness of her characters. In this way, she does more than make us feel for them. She makes us feel what they feel, which is, I think, the point of literature and maybe even the point of being human. . . . [Lisa Moore] gets life. . . . Exquisitely mindful . . . Luminous.” —Caroline Adderson, The Globe and Mail

“Marvelous . . . Evocative . . . This is a book for those who enjoyed getting into the head of the eponymous Olive Kitteridge . . . or those who appreciated the writing of Christine Schutt’s All Souls. I loved February: it was moving (but not soppy) and insightful.” —Nancy Pearl

“Moore’s ability to write originally and passionately about love and death relies on her eye for detail and her psychologically acute portrayals. This may be beautiful writing, but it is never without the necessary bite that makes it real.” —Lesley McDowell, Scottish Herald

“Life in the pages of Lisa Moore’s glorious new novel feels more real than it does in the world we inhabit. . . . Her vital, original imagery startles us into her characters’ consciousness: She forces us to engage the world around us with an intimacy we tend to avoid. . . . It is the peculiar aptness, of Moore’s images—which are the individual perceptions of an idiosyncratic mind—that fuel her astounding literary gift. . . . Moore [presents a] wise equation: that love plus loss equals life. Her vision of the world is bitter and joyful; angry and generous. And true. Very true.” —Donna Bailey Nurse, The Montreal Gazette

“Lisa Moore can do impressive things with plain language.” —Robert Cremins, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“One of the most remarkable things in February is how Moore erases time, how the past will come up and hit her characters in the face. . . . [February] evokes Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in its finely drawn obsessed with someone missing. How pleased Woolf would be to see her legacy so beautifully rendered by Lisa Moore.” —Roberta Silman, PRI’s The World (online)

“A powerful novel for its insight into emotional endurance, and how life goes on even as tragedy leaves broken slivers of hearts in its wake. . . . Loneliness is hard to write about without becoming maudlin or clich’d. But Moore seems to understand this very human facility, describing the unconscious ways we sometimes try to avoid feeling overwhelmed by it. . . . Incredibly empathetic . . . There’s an economy about Moore’s style that allows us to fully see how a once vibrant life can be whittled down by a pain and loneliness that is far too deep to communicate, but by grounding her writing in the physical world, Moore shows how life’s everyday tasks and encounters create a comforting continuity that eventually wears down emotional pain to allow forward movement.” —Carla Maria Lucchetta, The Ottawa Citizen

“Moore’s writing resembles poetry. . . . She expertly captures her characters’ physical surroundings in sharp-edged fragments of color and sensation . . . [and] probes their emotional landscapes gently and thoroughly. . . . A marvelous book.” —Joanne Epp, Winnipeg Free Press

“This profoundly moving, beautifully written book describes in painful detail the aftermath of loss and the ways in which people manage to cope with life’s most extreme events.” —Waterstones Book Quarterly

“Deftly executed and moving.” —Vit Wagner, The Star (Toronto)

“Emotional tension, coupled with an acute eye for regional setting and dialect, has long been a hallmark of Moore’s work. . . . [February] is hauntingly beautiful . . . [and its] subtle styling, sparse dialogue and sombre tone succeed at shining a light not only upon the impact of the Ocean Ranger disaster, but also upon the lasting aftermath of death itself. . . . Moore pens another triumph.” —Stephen Clare, The Chronicle Herald (Canada)

“[Written] in prose that is at once challenging and facile, richly poetic but eminently consumable.” —Suzannah Showler, The Walrus

“A perfectly pitched novel.” —Woman & Home (UK)

“Fans of Anita Shreve and Anne Enright will love this.” —Red Magazine (UK)

“The gentle, meandering pace of this exquisitely expresses the agony of grief and the confusions and complexities of parental love.” —Easy Living (UK)

“Moore’s portrayal of loss is remarkably real.” —Psychologies (UK)

“Moore’s ability to write originally and passionately about love and death . . . [is] never without the necessary bite that makes it real.” —Scottish Herald (UK)

“This mesmerizing book is full of tears, and is a graceful meditation on how to survive life’s losses.” —Marie Claire (UK)

“Lisa Moore’s heart-warming second novel is domestic fiction at its finest.” —Daily Mail (UK)

“Skillfully structured . . . [A] delicate, involving novel.” —The Daily Express (UK)

Awards

Finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Caribbean and Canadian region)
Longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Longlisted for the 2011 the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award
A New Yorker Best Books of 2010

Excerpt

Early Morning

Sunrise or Sunset, November 2008

Helen watches as the man touches the skate blade to the sharpener. There is a stainless steel cone to catch the spray of orange sparks that fly up. A deep grinding noise grows shrill and she thinks: Johnny is coming home.

The sharpener vibrates the counter beneath her fingers; John had phoned last night from the Singapore airport. The roar of a plane landing in the background. She’d sat up on one elbow, grabbed the receiver.

Her grandson Timmy stands before the bubblegum dispenser, transfixed. There is a cardboard sign written in pen promising a free skate sharpening if you get a black jawbreaker.

I’ve got a quarter in here somewhere, Helen says. Unzipping the beaded coin purse. She is the mother of one son and three girls and there are two grandchildren.

My daughters complied, she thinks, digging for the quarter. She thinks of a slap, stinging and loud; she slapped Cathy’s cheek once, the white print of her hand flooding red—this was years ago, a lifetime ago.

Helen demanded of the girls that they give in, do what she said; but Johnny had been ungovernable.

A boy just like Cal, is what she thought when she discovered she was pregnant with Johnny. The nurse didn’t tell her the sex of the fetus that first time but she’d known it was a boy. The ultrasound was at five in the morning and she rode her bike. Lime Street covered in an early October frost. There were still stars at that hour. Her hands cold on the handlebars. Having to walk the bike up Carter’s Hill.

How desperately her son had wanted everything when he was a kid. He had wanted that puppy he’d found behind the supermarket sitting on a scrap of cardboard. She had said about the cost and fleas and the exercise a dog needs. But Johnny wanted the dog.

The grinding wheel revs and squeals when the blade touches it, and Helen pulls out a handful of change and lets Timmy take a quarter. His mother will be furious. Timmy doesn’t eat his vegetables, lives on macaroni and cheese. They have rules; Helen’s daughters all have bitter rules. The fate of the world can hang on a jawbreaker. If you say no, you mean it.

All profits, Helen reads, go to the Canadian Mental Health Association. She watches the boy slide the quarter into the notch and turn the stiff handle and the jawbreakers slump against each other behind the glass. Timmy lifts the little gate with his finger. Black. A black jawbreaker rolls out into his hand. He turns to show it to Helen. His pale freckled skin, lit up. The blue vein in his temple. Orange hair. The spit of his mother. The very spit out of her mouth. It is joy, the colourless eyelashes, green eyes flecked with hazel. The sharpener on the second skate blade. The smell of burning metal. And the fan of orange sparks. Timmy holds up the black jawbreaker and the man behind the sharpener stops the machine and lifts his goggles and lets them rest on his forehead.

A free one, he says. He frowns, running a thumb down the blade.

Johnny called last night to say the sun was rising over Singapore. Rising or setting, he did not know.

I don’t know what day it is, he said. He was coming from Tasmania and he’d slept on the plane, lost track of time. His cellphone kept cutting out, or there was a zooming in and out of his voice. He’d woken her up. A telephone at night scares the hell out of her.

It might be Monday, he said. Or it might be Sunday. A big red ball hanging over the palm trees at the edge of a landing strip.

Have you ever tried to figure out the difference between what you are, he said, and what you have to become? He said it softly and Helen sat up straighter. Sometimes his voice was perfectly clear.

Johnny was capable of grandiose philosophizing while encountering a sunset; that was all. Maybe there was nothing wrong, she’d thought. He was thirty-five. He was somewhere in Singapore.

She thought of him: a day at the beach when he was seven years old, his tanned chest, his shins caked with sand. Some bigger boys had been whipping him with strips of seaweed, forcing him farther out into the waves. She’d looked up from her book. Helen had been lost in a novel one minute, and the next she was knee deep in the water, striding, screaming her lungs out. The boys couldn’t hear her because of the wind.

Bullies, she screamed. You big bullies. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Then she was upon them and they froze.

He started it, Missus.

Look at the size of you. Just look. Pick on someone your own size. And the boys took off, plowing through the waves, glancing back, half saucy but scared.

Where had the girls been on that day? Cal must have given her a break. A day at the beach long ago, three decades or more, and now here was the dresser, her perfume bottle pierced by a street light, the brown liquid full of a still fire, the fringe of the rug, her housecoat on a hook; Johnny was a grown man. She was clutching the receiver. She was fifty-five; no, fifty-six.

What you have to become, she’d said.

Johnny was the kind of guy who phoned his mother infrequently, but when he did he was by turns pithy and incoherent and, inevitably, he had a bad connection. Or else something was wrong. He wanted to share the sunset with her; that was all, she’d thought. The sun was going down. Or the sun was coming up. But no, it was more than a sunset. This time he had something to say.

The proprietor hooks bright red skate guards over the blades and knots the long laces so the skates can hang over Timmy’s shoulder.

There you are, you’re all set, he says. He gives Timmy a soft cuff on the ear. Timmy ducks shyly. Helen sees the jawbreaker move from one cheek to the other.

Going skating, are you, the man says.

We’re going to give it a whirl, Helen says.

The ponds will be good soon, the man says. We’ve had a nice stretch of weather.

They all turn to look out the window. The street has been sanded away in a blast of wind and snow.

Reading Group Guide

Helen O’Mara is widowed at age thirty when her husband, Cal, is killed in an oil rig disaster off the coast of Newfoundland. She is the mother of three young children, Johnny, nine, Cathy, eight, and Lulu, seven; and is pregnant with her fourth, Gabrielle. Lisa Moore uses the real life tragedy of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger on Valentine’s Day, 1982, to construct a story of devastating grief, loneliness, and ultimately, survival.

1. The story begins in 2008 and quickly flashes back to 1982. How is Helen’s temperament depicted in these first pages? What has happened to Helen in twenty-six years? Do you sense changes, or does she seem almost the same?

2. “Everybody had some kind of dream the night the rig went down” (p. 8). What role do dreams play in the story? Is Helen a dreamer? Is Helen pragmatic?

3. Helen feels “outside;” she feels “banished.” “It was an elaborate piece of theatre, this lying about the true state of where she was: outside” (p. 14). Does Helen “lie” to her children? Does she lie to herself? Does she cope? How?

4. “But John had got some girl pregnant. There was going to be a child. Two months after the Ocean Ranger sank, Helen’s mother-in-law had told Helen she’d had the dream again about the baby in the tree. It was the same dream Meg had when the rig went down. I think you’re pregnant, Meg told her. And Helen realized her mother-in-law was right” (p. 35). Moore moves seamlessly from 1982 to 2008. What does she reveal by linking these two pregnancies that occur so many years apart? What is similar and what is different about them? What emotional response does Helen have?

5. In the next chapter Moore makes twenty-six years pass seamlessly from one sentence to the next; “Come see your little sister, his mother had said. They’re calling my flight, John said now. I’ve got to go. Now, listen, John, his mother said. Are you listening? I’m listening, Mother, he said. He said Mother with a brittle irony” (p .41). How does John relate to Helen? How are Helen and John connected?

6. “My girls are unscarred, Helen thinks. My girls are frugal and shrewd, but they know how to have fun. When her girls were young, Helen had an idea she wanted them to be free of guilt. It was not an idea she had been able to put into words. But it was what she had wanted for her girls” (p. 141). Discuss how Helen treats John differently from his sisters. Is John an “outsider”? How has Helen’s attitude toward her daughters influenced Cathy and Lulu? Is Gabrielle different because she was born after her father’s death?

7. Cal’s father, Dave O’Mara, identifies his son’s body and tells Helen that she shouldn’t see him. Her reactions are very visceral. Find some examples of how she thinks about Cal before and after the accident. Why, in the end, does she decide not to view the body?

8. “She sleeps and sometimes she dreams him, and it is wrenching to wake up. There is no talk in these dreams, no actual words in these dreams, but she knows what he wants; he wants her to follow him” (p. 68). What about the accident continues to torment Helen? Does Helen live in the past? Does she really want to die to be with Cal?

9. What is the significance of Meg’s baptism of baby Gabrielle? Why doesn’t Helen intervene?

10. Throughout the story there are references to sparks, electricity, and fire. What do these various allusions represent? What kinds of accidents occur in the story? Can accidents be avoided? Is the broken mirror on her honeymoon really an omen to Helen?

11. The author describes some details about Jane Downey’s background, her interest in anthropology, her parents, and her life before meeting John. Why is it striking that they met in and spent a week together in Iceland? In what ways are John and Jane similar and in what ways are they different? Do you think that they are compatible? Discuss Jane’s reaction to her pregnancy as opposed to John’s. How would you compare their relationship to Helen and Cal’s?

12. “The school counselor, it seemed, had wanted John to know he was right to be afraid. There were very real things in the world to be afraid of. He had taught John some lucid dreaming techniques. These will help you cope, he’d said” (p. 94). Can John control his dreams? Can he control his fears? Does lucid dreaming help him?

13. “Everybody knows wallabies are herbivores, the little girl said. And then: What’s an abortion? John had assumed she didn’t speak English” (p. 34). In what ways does John seem clueless in Tasmania? How does his encounter with the little Japanese girl stick with him?

14. What part does Helen’s sister, Louise play? Why does she want Helen to renovate her house? “I’d open this place up, she said. It’s too goddamn dark in here. And now there are two ragged gaping holes on either side of the fireplace where the bookshelves had been” (p. 114). Is Louise helpful to Helen? Describe their relationship. Why does Helen seem ambivalent about renovating?

15. “Helen had seen that his work was in demand. You won’t be available, she asked. I’m pretty steady on, Barry said, up until June. Then I can’t be had for love nor money. He winked at her” (p. 147). How would you describe Barry? How does Helen see him? How does her experience with online dating affect her? Has her notion of a relationship changed since Cal’s death? Have her objectives altered with age?

16. Helen recalls all that happened in her house on the night of the accident. All her senses seem to have been especially acute. “She had known he was dead” (p. 161). Do you think that crises make us more attentive? Why is she so obsessed with knowing the exact details of what happened on the rig before it went down? Do you think that knowledge brings comfort? Do you think that Helen can ever know the truth?

17. “I can’t do this, Helen said. You were drifting into the other lane. I’m too old. You can’t drift. You have no bloody idea, Helen said” (p. 213). Helen’s driving lesson is tragicomic. Why does she learn to drive? Why does she take her daughter’s suggestion to take yoga? What does she experience at yoga? Do you think that she is about to “go forward”? What is happening to Helen?

18. “John has avoided being a father all his adult life. It has taken stealth and some underhandedness” (p. 238). Compare John to his sister, Cathy, who had a child when she was fifteen. What makes Cathy so impetuous? Is John really a cautious person? Is he really thoughtful? Which of Helen’s children is most like her?

19. “But she and Barry are not too old for carpentry, for making a living, for sewing dresses, for snowstorms and night sweats and threats from the bank and children and crying grandchildren. They are called upon. They are expected to participate. Maybe it should be over but it is not over. It is not over” (p. 243). What is Helen beginning to realize about Barry? What is she realizing about herself? What is the nature of time in this story? How does it affect everyone, but most especially, Helen?

20. “What is the world after all? What are sunlight and love and the birth of a child and all the small passions that break out and flare and matter so very much?” (p. 299). What is the importance of the eclipse on Helen and Barry’s honeymoon? Does it say more about the past or the future?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Alligator by Lisa Moore; The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood; The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence; Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro; The Bird Artist by Howard Norman