For this book, I’m bringing out all the clichés: I did not want to put this book down, I didn’t want it to end, and I predict that it will be on my best-of list at the end of the year.
[Breakwater Books] Ledger of the Open Hand looks at the intimate power of money and emotional debt through the eyes of a woman trying to grab hold of her own life. Beholden to a shrewd friend and burdened by family obligations and guilt, Meriel-Claire (MC) finally stumbles into what she’s been missing. She falls in love and finds her calling as a debt counsellor in the midst of a national financial crisis. But balancing the books for strangers is easier than reconciling her own complicated relationships. Regrets and deficits accumulate until MC must decide what she owes to those she loves. With humour and insight, Ledgerexplores giving, taking, and our tendency to treat love as a balance sheet.
What I love best about this book are the characters, their relationships, and the attention to detail. Vryenhoek’s ability to bring out the richness and subtleties of life is brilliant and absorbing.
Meriel-Claire/MC/Meriel knows her family loves her, but she grows up feeling like she is not quite the person they wish her to be. It is not unusual for her mother to comment on her appearance or her social life, implying that neither is quite enough. “I’m glad you’re finally paying some attention to your appearance.”
I picked up my book again but I didn’t open it. I just stared at the cover, thinking how people take their same selves along wherever they go – how no one ever emerges a totally different creature from their chrysalis.
Meriel is more like her father; not as hung up on appearances, more concerned with obligation and responsibility. “You have an opportunity here that should not be squandered.” But that doesn’t mean that she has any idea of what she wants to do with her life.
When the scholarship letter had come, my father announced that we needed to talk. He made a big production of taking me for a drive instead of just talking to me in the kitchen, like what he wanted to tell me was so important, so expansive, it required the open road, scrub oaks and furrowed fields standing witness.
Meriel’s relationship with her brother changes over time, but ends up having a big impact on her life and the choices she makes.
I started to apologize – sorry, sorry, sorry – but I stopped myself before the first feeble word escaped. I choked them all back right then, the million apologies rushing up in me. If I hadn’t, I would have spent the rest of my life on them.
Daneen (Meriel’s friend from University) and Meriel probably have the most complicated relationship. Although it’s plain to the reader what is going on, and that Meriel might want to branch out and find herself some new friends, it’s not as easy for Meriel to see. It takes her years of an on again/off again emotional roller coaster to finally get the picture. I wondered what her life might have looked like without Daneen. We only have one chance at life; why does it have to be so hard to get a handle on it?
A handful of weeks into our association, I already regarded Daneen as a deep pool, one that reflected back all the things I wasn’t. Where she was lithe, I was lumpy; where I felt awkward and alienated, she was always so sure of herself.
And, yes, there is a theme of debt in this book; of debts paid and owed, financial and otherwise. There is also a thread of fear and control; learning how to find that balance between being cautious and taking risks.
Maybe everything is about accumulation, about how things add up and liability compounds, day after day, year after year.
Meriel’s character felt so authentic, like she could have been any one of us. And, because of that, I felt for her and with her; I could feel her fury and indignation, my whole body tensing up in support of her. I wanted her to feel good about herself, take it easier on herself, stop comparing herself to others, and to be able to just let go.
Also of interest are Meriel’s parents. Anxieties, growth, and self-discovery don’t end once your children are grown and have left home. Meriel’s parents find themselves searching for a new purpose, with each other and on their own. A long and successful marriage does not guarantee lifelong happiness and satisfaction. Vryenhoek explores these ideas through their relationships with each other, with each of their children, with Daneen who has wormed her way into the family, and with themselves.
Leslie Vryenhoek has made a book about an ‘ordinary’ family and an ‘ordinary’ life into a page-turner.
“Vryenhoek strips away the meticulous varnish of a cautious life, revealing the tyranny of calculation, the futility of adherence to the rational, and the glory of letting go.” [Ania Szado]
A few more good passages and lines:
What’s important, I think, is being sure that you’re making the choice, not just going along with a choice made for you.
She didn’t want to help, she just wanted to make sure I didn’t do any damage, throw away anything important. And everything was important. It was as if every single broken dish and years-old jar of rock solid onion flakes held a rare and specific meaning – a memory, or else a fragment of a heart that could be pieced back together someday as long as none of the pieces went missing.
Daneen and I passed the morning in near silence as if, we too, were stifled under some heavy encumbrance, or else like we’d parcelled out all our conversation to fit within the allotted time and made no allowance for added hours.
In the end, Daneen left us all wallowing in the shallow grave of our badly lived lives.
… he has that disarming , muppety thing going on, mixed in with some distinguished mature-man charm.
I want to include the last line of the book, but I think I will leave that one for you to discover.
Ledger of the Open Hand has just been nominated as one of the 3 finalists for the Winterset Literary Prize. Last year the winner was Megan Gail Coles for her short story collection, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome.
*Thank you to Breakwater Books for providing me with a copy of the book for review!