Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.
My rating: 8/10
First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.
Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.
A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.
You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.
July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.
Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.
Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.
Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.
If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.
Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:
Adel-Ada won‘t play with me because ... they don’t like me.
They don’t like me because ………… I scream.
Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.
I have to scream because …………… because ...
The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!
It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.
Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.
In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.
Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)
Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.
Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.
Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)
The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…
So. Sylvia Fraser.
In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”
Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.
What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.
This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.
I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:
Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.
Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.
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