Because I Have Loved and Hidden It

Because I Have Loved and Hidden It

By Fiona O'Connor

Published on October 1, 2009

Because I Have Loved And Hidden It
Elise Moser

Cormorant Books
$21
paper
256pp
978-1-897151-36-5

St-Laurent Boulevard’s Salon b is a second-story café which overlooks a funeral home. It is strangely fitting that I meet two-time CBC-QWF Short Story Competition winner and current QWF President Elise Moser here, to discuss themes related not only to our venue but to her debut novel: death, loss, mourning, life, love and what, for Moser, often ties them all together, literature.

The soft-spoken Moser says, “I feel like having started writing just completely opened this whole new world, and people are unbelievably generous about everything.” The optimism and humility with which Moser discusses writing her first novel underline the inherent paradox of its subject matter. Because I Have Loved and Hidden It, to be published by Cormorant Books this fall, focuses on death and sadness and the revelations about life and happiness they spawn for the story’s protagonist, middle-aged Julia Goodman.

Against the vivid backdrop of present-day Montreal, we meet Julia, the manager of an upscale garden store, at the moment of her estranged mother’s funeral. Establishing the novel’s melancholy mood, the death of Julia’s non-nurturing mother serves to underscore the emotional desperation and patterns of mismanaged love that come to define our protagonist’s character. But before leading us into the psychological underpinnings of her conflict, Moser swiftly draws us into what is, at least initially, Julia’s primary preoccupation and sorrow: the mysterious disappearance of her married lover, Nicholas.

Nicholas, a well-respected writer in the field of architectural history, goes missing while on a research trip in Morocco. Our impression of him forms out of the rhythmic unfolding of Julia’s detailed memories, frequent daydreams, and obsessive speculations as to his possible whereabouts. While Nicholas’s physical absence lends itself to his character’s seductive mystique, the reader soon recognizes – seemingly before the protagonist – both the origins and inevitable outcome of her unrequited devotion to him.

As a consequence of her losses, Julia becomes unmoored. Her longing for her lover’s inconstant attention intensifies even as she is forced to question the unhappiness she had once seemed resigned to. Desperate for clues and a meaningful human bond, Julia begins to peel back the layers of her life, from its rocky and forgotten foundations to its newly exposed mysteries.

Not the least of these is an unsettling document left by her mother in the hands of Paul Goodman, Julia’s sympathetic uncle. On the same hot summer day of Carol’s funeral, Uncle Paul – a character Moser admits is loosely based on her own uncle – presents Julia with an old birth certificate that causes her to embark on a quest for answers to long-silenced questions. This quest ultimately restores a connection to her extended family.

While this mystery alleviates some of the psychoanalytic predictability of Moser’s intersecting plotlines (Julia’s dysfunctional romantic life replicating her dysfunctional family history), it is Moser’s final twist that brings some real, if not fantastical tension to the story. In the chasm left by Nicholas’s disappearance, Julia embarks on a passionate affair with his wife, the beautiful and accomplished Deepa O’Malley.

While the Brooklyn-born, Montreal-based writer affirms that the book is not autobiographical, she admits that the process of writing Julia’s character was nevertheless intimate. “The whole book comes out of my…being inside her,” she explains. “The connection between her physical life and her mental life – I think it’s probably how I usually write – but in the case of Julia I think it’s more intensely the case.”

Unlike the more intuitive process of writing poetry or short stories, striking the balance between the novel’s subject matter and the plot’s development was a challenge for Moser. “The poetry and the short stories usually really start with the words. I write the first sentence without knowing what’s going to come next and then the words just sort of generate the next words.” With the novel, Moser was more conscious of the story’s arc and the way in which the dual plotlines would cross it. Afternoon breaks to her morning writing schedule allowed the author “to think about what was going to come next every day,” she says, adding that “I was always working towards something but I didn’t know what the whole arc would be, or only in the very large sense.”

Written in the third person, Because I Have Loved and Hidden It highlights Moser’s penchant for illustrative prose, rich description, and meticulous detail. But while the author succeeds in bringing to life the sensuality of her characters’ experiences – the taste of a sip of wine, the smell of a freshly cooked meal – it is the premise of Julia’s emotional burden that eventually compromises the reader’s ability to empathize with her. “She’s really hungry,” Moser says of her protagonist’s insatiable and misdirected search for love, “and so that drives her to do things that somebody who wasn’t so needy might be more cautious about… she just goes for it, and is willing to live with the results.”

While Julia’s approach to improving her situation is, at times, questionable, it is the very fact that her circumstances are complex – and her response to them so instinctive – that underscores her authenticity. Without having to define her, Moser successfully frames the experiences of Julia as a childless, middle-aged woman with a non-discriminating love for both men and women as universal, thereby avoiding a construction of her as an overtly unconventional protagonist.

To be sure, the fluidity with which Julia moves in her romantic life between men and women is a sign of her keen sexual self-awareness. And while her affair with Deepa is marked by much greater physical and emotional reciprocity than is her relationship with Nicholas, Moser says it has as much to do with the particular circumstances of each relationship as it does with Julia’s sexual preferences. “One of the things that I tried to make in Julia was a character who doesn’t feel the need to compare,” says Moser. “She just loves who she loves.”

The strong interconnectedness between Julia’s emotional experience and her physical states, whether real or imagined, situates the novel within the broader thematic context of Moser’s work. It also highlights Julia’s self-consciousness, something Moser was struck by upon recently reviewing the book’s proofs: “I was shocked! I thought, my god, every third sentence is that Julia is embarrassed – she’s embarrassed all the time…”

As a reflection of Julia’s evolving realizations about love, the episodic structure of the novel makes sense. Shedding light on this approach to story-telling Moser says: “I didn’t really choose it. I have never thought in terms of chapters…I just don’t think that way.” Though one wonders if the novel might have maintained a stronger dramatic thrust had its interweaving plotlines been structured differently, Moser’s insights into the complexities of love both as a basic human need and as a learned behaviour remain poignant. Her honest portrayal of one woman’s resolve to repair her fragmented life makes for an intimate and heartfelt debut. mRb

Fiona O'Connor is a Montreal writer.

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