The Violets of Usambara

The Violets of Usambara

By Danielle LaFrance

A review of The Violets Of Usambara by Mary Soderstrom

Published on May 1, 2008

The Violets Of Usambara
Mary Soderstrom

Cormorant Books
$21
paper
190pp
978-1-897151-25-9

Seemingly unrelated events are the backdrop to Mary Soderstrom’s The Violets of Usambara: grocery shopping, working long hours, genocide, war. The book is set in the consciousnesses of a married couple, ex-Cabinet Minister Thomas Brossard and his wife Louise, with alternating chapters given to each. They have been married for decades, raised a family together, endured political struggles, and have now reached the time when they should truly be enjoying one another’s company. But this is not to be.

The novel takes us through the Mile-End district of Montreal and the war-torn streets of Bujumbura, successfully interweaving the political climate of both Burundi and Quebec during the 1990s. While Thomas is on a four-day fact-finding mission in Africa, Louise’s reticence grows palpable. Her agoraphobia, increasing during the height of Thomas’s latest political campaign, prevents her from escaping the barriers of her home and memories.

Soderstrom’s writing is tense and subtle, often using repetitive wordplay and seamless flashbacks to navigate through time and place. “They both agreed that in an ideal world, Louise would have gone to Burundi, not Thomas,” the novel begins. “Africa was her continent. For years she’d kept tabs on it, raised money for it, grown its flowers. But Louise did not travel well, and it was Thomas who was needed. Or so Louise said.”

From the beginning of the novel we see their faltering relationship, without the couple explicitly being analyzed. We learn that Louise’s and Thomas’s marriage was born, not only of passion, but of convenience, permitting him to dodge the Vietnam draft. Flashbacks triggered by familiar smells, sounds and Louise’s African violet obsession provide us with a glimpse of her dependence on Thomas.

Soderstrom’s tone is a steady inhalation until it reaches an unbearable breathlessness. Thomas and Louise have been growing emotionally absent from each other, and now are physically apart. Thomas has come to resent Louise’s encouragement, silently blaming her for his political failures. Their distaste with ageing seeps into their lives. The shimmer of their golden years has faded; the further one reads, the more one mourns their relationship.

In Africa, Thomas, no longer in political power, wants to be noticed for his good deeds. When asked by his guide to speak about “peace” in Canada and the ability to have a meaningful dialogue between opponents, something not found between the Hutus and Tutsis, his response shows his inability to accept his loss of status.

The couple’s destructive narrative seems to negate the beauty that can be found in a relationship. Violets become an important poetic device, subtly evoking lost love. As Louise moves between recognition and loss, her passion for African violets mimics her own inability to thrive outdoors. Though the plants need bright light, too much direct sun can harm them. In Bujumbura, Thomas searches for violets from Usambara, his feelings for Louise finally overcoming his rancour.

Soderstrom is to be commended for juxtaposing a political context with a love relationship. She does so implicitly, allowing us to relate to these characters in all their weaknesses. The poetic tone works well in navigating their obscured memories. The intricate weaving between Louise and Thomas aches and swells, leaving the reader with a sense of loss. mRb

Danielle LaFrance is a writer and a visual artist.

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