I found The Elizabeth Stories by Isabel Huggan by accident in a used book store in Evanston on the recent vacation. I had a ladies’ day with a friend, and we went into a wonderful used book store just to browse. I found a few books, paid, then stood by the cash-register while waiting for my friend to finish. This one was in a box, and for some reason it caught my eye (perhaps it was the name? I’ve always had a love affair with ‘Elizabeth’). I read the back-cover blurb, then opened the first page. By the time my friend finished paying, I knew I had to take the book home so I could finish reading it.
The book is a series of short-stories about the childhood and adolescence of an unhappy young Canadian girl named Elizabeth. She spends her entire life yearning to escape from the constricted, 1950s life in her constricted little town. Her trials and tribulations are the normal sort of any reasonably well-off albeit awkward young girl, but told in such a raw and unflinching style as to be almost shocking. Following along in the head of the young Elizabeth through her first awkward, secret introductions to her own body, the darkness of the human soul, and the unfairness of the world, my heart raced and my lungs constricted with the intensity of the prose.
There are some problematic aspects of the book, both structurally and thematically. The layout of interconnected stories jumps around a bit in time, leading to a somewhat confusing picture of the sequence of events depicted. There’s also a certain sense of unfulfilled promise at the end. It leaves off with a final event before Elizabeth escapes her tiny town to college in the city, but many of the issues are never really resolved. There’s no resolution of her relationship with her parents, just the unbearable strain of unhappy people trapped by the bonds of blood left hanging in the air. Elizabeth’s sexuality is never fully allowed to blossom in the sunlight, with the tantalizing hints of a woman who wants for herself, and the suggestion of bisexuality in her early experimentation never spoken aloud. Most troubling is the monochromatic picture of race reflected in Elizabeth’s eyes. Differences are explored, especially social and class differences, but never the differences of race. The only mention of people of any color is when she lusts fleetingly after a black trumpet-player in the band at a city dance-hall.
Still, the book was definitely powerful, provocative, and compelling. It’s a slim book, not even 200 pages long, and I finished it all in one sitting. It’s the sort of book I may not re-read very often, but parts of it are sure to stick with me for quite some time.