About six years ago, I read Cool Water, the Governor-General’s award-winning novel by Dianne Warren and I really enjoyed it, so I was excited to learn she had another novel published, Liberty Street. I’m surprised that I had not heard more about this book.
Frances Moon is a middle-aged woman on a holiday with her long-term partner when she blurts out a secret she has kept for decades: “’I lost a baby when I was nineteen. . . . it died. Before that, I was married. But not to the father of the baby. . . . I’m still married now . . . Unless my husband has died . . . (2 – 4). That admission ends the holiday, and Frances finds herself compelled to revisit her hometown of Elliot in northern Saskatchewan where she explores the events and long-repressed memories that have shaped her life. Her relationship with her mother is examined, a difficult relationship considering her mother championed education and Frances had no ambition for continuing studies past high school.
Frances is not a very likeable character. As a young girl, she has no personal ambition; actually, she totally lacks self-knowledge and seems to want to coast through life. Despite warnings from many people, she makes a decision which ends badly. Her choice then is to step out of that life and pretend “It didn’t happen” (238). She makes more poor choices which she regrets and deals with by escaping into another life: “’I became a different person afterward’” (6). Of course, she can’t totally outrun her past as her spontaneous revelation to her partner suggests, and it is only by facing her past that she can move on. She is “nearer sixty than fifty” (4) when she learns to be less self-centred, realizes that she was not the only one to make bad decisions, and decides to be kinder to others?! Talk about arrested emotional development! Unfortunately, I know someone who is just like her so though Frances may be infuriating, she is realistic.
The character development is exceptional. Characters are fully developed and differentiated. Frances’ mother and father are developed so well that the reader can predict their reactions to events. Dooley Sullivan is an interesting secondary character who is given a chapter to himself. This chapter I found disconcerting since no other character is given a section from his/her point of view. The information given could have been incorporated into a conversation between Frances and Dooley when they meet on Liberty Street.
Life in a small town is portrayed very realistically. I did not grow up in rural Saskatchewan, but the attitudes and habits of the townsfolk in Elliot reflect those of the people in my small Ontario hometown.
I’ve always enjoyed books where a character must come to terms with his/her past, and this one is no exception. Frances returns to Liberty Street to get her freedom, but realizes that there is no liberty from one’s past: it makes us who we are and, hopefully, we can learn from it.