MacDonald, Fall on Your Knees
Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 by
|Holly Davis - University of Otago, Department of English
"MacDonald accurately portrays the way children think, leaving us wondering at her insight, and gasping at the recognition of ourselves in the Piper children."
It is astonishing that Fall on Your Knees by Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald is her debut novel. So assured is the style, so intricate the plotting, and so accomplished the portrait of the four unforgettable Piper sisters, one would expect that the author was a seasoned novelist. Fall on Your Knees can best be described as an epic: it details the lives, and particularly the childhoods, of the four sisters; it moves in place from Cape Breton Island (a remote region of Nova Scotia) to New York, and in time from pre World War One to the Jazz Age and the depression; and it contains love, pain, death, joy, and triumph in varying degrees. This is quite an achievement for a first-time novelist.
The story begins on Cape Breton Island where we meet James Piper, a poor piano tuner of Gaelic origin, and Materia Mahmoud, the daughter of wealthy and well-respected Lebanese parents. Their childish love rouses the angst of Materia's father, and to escape his anger they elope. So from the opening pages of the novel MacDonald establishes some of the major themes -- class conflict, racism, and isolation. MacDonald's real theme, however, is the nature of family love. Her main focus is on the childhood of the Piper sisters, and her extraordinary insight into the magic world of childhood is just one feature which makes this novel so compelling.
MacDonald's greatest talent lies in characterisation. Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances, and Lily Piper could be our own sisters, so acute is MacDonald's eye for detail, and so strong her sense of childhood. And yet they are so fascinating and original they are more interesting, almost more alive, than anyone I know. The sisters begin their lives amidst the isolation of Cape Breton Island, and this isolation means that they are dependent on each other rather than on friends and neighbours -- a perfect situation for MacDonald's exploration of familial relationships.
MacDonald accurately portrays the way children think, leaving us wondering at her insight, and gasping at the recognition of ourselves in the Piper children. The eldest sister, Kathleen, is precocious and spoilt, since she has the gift of a great voice which sees her leave the island to study opera in New York. She is very much her father's daughter, and the closeness of their relationship leads to tragic consequences. Mercedes is kind and pious, a mother figure to her younger sisters and her father. Her desire and ambitions are sacrificed in order to support her family, and this burden, forced upon her at an early age, highlights the difference between her and Frances. Frances, only one year younger than Mercedes, is bold and boyish, frequently getting into trouble. But MacDonald reveals that her mischievous streak exists only to disguise her huge capacity to love and her fear that she will not be loved by her family. Lily is the youngest daughter, although the mystery surrounding her birth brings into question whether she is a Piper sister or not. Lily seems to have a "gift," and to exemplify this there is something mythical and enchanting about MacDonald's portrait of Lily.
The character studies form the heart of the novel, but that is not to say that the plotting is not important. The plot is multi-faceted, rather than linear, although at times the novel seems like a Bildungsroman, with MacDonald essentially showing the sisters' progression through childhood, and therefore explaining how they develop their distinctive identities. There are a number of climaxes, however, which make this novel as gripping and page-turning as any John Grisham blockbuster. As Philippa Gregory of the Sunday Times writes, "It is the unpredictability of this huge book that is its greatest joy." Everything about MacDonald's plotting is logical. But nothing about it is predictable, and I was frequently amazed at MacDonald's originality in creating the numerous twists in the plot -- a feature that is likely to become her trademark. The major climax occurs on the night of Frances' liaison with Ginger Taylor. MacDonald weaves three or more events togther in a non-sequential way, so as to confuse us as to chronological time. This compels us to read on and discover the "reality" of what has happened.
MacDonald's prose is straightforward, in keeping with her portrayal of childhood; but her language is never dull. With allusions and references ranging from Hollywood stars to religious tracts, Fall on Your Knees simmers with vibrancy. The epigraph to the novel is taken from Wuthering Heights and is entirely appropriate to a novel whose concern is with the power of familial love, and the different, often violent forms that love can take:
canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?"
Perhaps Mary Loudon of The Times expressed this theme best when she said that Fall on Your Knees was "a curious testament to both the power of love and the inability of humans to live fully without it."
Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Ed. Alan Manford. Oxford: OUP, 1985.
- - - Jude the Obscure. Ed. Patricia Ingham. Oxford: OUP, 1985.
- - - The Woodlanders. Ed. Dale Kramer. Oxford: OUP, 1985.
Hassett, Michael E. "Compromised Romanticism in Jude the Obscure." Nineteenth Century Fiction 25 (1970-71): 432-43.