Sunday, December 26, 2010

Robert Hough and Final Confession

Almost a month since I've written, and less than a week 'til the end of the year round-up.
So, I'm obviously sticking with the short and sweet (or quick and dirty?!) reviews. . .

Robert Hough's The Final Confession of Mabel Stark -- a wonderfully layered, captivating first-person narrator, an old woman looking back on her travels through the 20th-century as a big-cat trainer. What would a lively, capable, initially innocent young woman do if left to her own resources and a first marriage delivered some shocks about "the facts of life"? What options existed beyond either marital boredom and domestic servitude OR a life of shame and ignominy? Mabel's adventures require her to develop a tough demeanor, but her yearning for love and some form of security are clear nonetheless -- perhaps accounting for the startling relationship with her favourite tiger. . . Novel seems firmly anchored in meticulous research, and there are convincing glimpses of hospital conditions and medical care, particularly nurses' contributions, from the earlier half of the 20th-century. The horrors of mental asylums and the helplessness of the women consigned to them during this period are revealed in all their scientific-objective details. But especially, the quirky and fascinating richness of circus life in the big travelling circus of early-mid-century North America. . . the friendships, the rivalries, the power plays, the dangers. . .

Always on the alert for knitting showing up in my reading, here's a Knitlit passage from Mabel (p. 88)
Having nabbed herself a rich husband and so able to leave the vagaries of circus life for comfort and security, Mabel perversely begins to chafe against the boredom, Deciding to knit herself a sweater, she got so intent on finishing I stopped bothering with the walks and started knitting on the front porch swing seat . . . . It took me a week to finish. I worked like my time on this planet was coming to an end. When the last pearl [sic] two was done I held the thing up to the light. Looked beautiful, it did, though at the same time something was wrong with it. Something peculiar.
Then I realized the damn thing was too small.
And not just small, but small, nowhere near big enough for an adult woman, even one of my slight proportions. I was astonished, for I'd followed the pattern to a T, and it'd come out looking exactly like it should except shrunk down. An eight-year-old would've had to exhale to get the buttons done up. I considered this fact for more than a minute, thinking maybe I really was crazy, when I recalled something Dr. Levine told me. . . . Seems we don't have one mind but two, one we know about and one we don't, and the one we know about isn't necessarily the one in charge. I kept holding up the sweater and scrutinizing it and thinking, What could this possibly mean? when suddenly my breathing went shallow and rabbit paced. Seems I didn't want to be knitting for an adult at all. I wanted to be knitting for a baby. I guess my two minds'd been duking it out the whole time, and the sweater had landed somewhere in the middle.

So knitting as an opportunity for our subconscious to express itself -- wonderful!


  1. So gratified to read your take on Hough's Mabel Stark. I recommend it all over the place to folks and sometimes feel like I made the book up because no one else seems to have read it. Tigers are unforgettable in this book, as is the depiction of circus life, which is a small obsession with me. For another CanLit look at circus life, I recommend Sara Gruen's Water For Elephants.

  2. Tanis: The tigers are amazing, absolutely. I've almost picked up Water for Elephants once or twice, and now I'll make sure I do. Have a rather large stack I'm committed to right now, mind you, which may completely swallow up my research leave . . .

  3. Not to add to your stack with Gruen's book, but you know how it is -- that stack never really diminishes. I have named my new cat Mabel, which I didn't intend as a reference to Hough's book when I named her nine weeks ago, but now am wondering whether it wasn't lurking in my mind. She is not tiger-like -- yet!

  4. Well, the moniker may be tiger-tamer to the cat . . . as was Mabel to the tigers, no?