Dazzle Patterns by Alison Watt

As some of you may know, I have been working on a little project the last couple of years; reading novels that have a connection to the Halifax Explosion. On December 6th of this year, 2017, it will be the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.

One of the things I find compelling about reading these books is comparing them. After reading the first couple of books I wondered how different they could be from each other. Will reading these books become like reading the same material over and over?

For the most part, I have been delighted by how fresh each book has felt. And Dazzle Patterns is a shining example of this. Being book #8 on my list, it had its work cut out for it; what more could it say that hasn’t already been said; what kind of story can be told that hasn’t already been told? Writers never cease to amaze me. This is why I love to read.

A woman pushing a pram slowed to inspect the window, her shoes scuffed and lumpy. The babe in the pram, almost lost in swaddling, was deep in newborn sleep, untouched by what happened here a mere year ago. On just such a morning, women, combing their hair and making tea, urged children to eat their porridge, lace up their boots, their husbands setting off for work with cold meat and thick bread slices in tin lunch cans, each oblivious to the precious ordinary moments. Just before they shattered.

Dazzle Patterns alternates its narration between Clare, Leo, and Fred.

Clare: A happy young woman who had an idyllic childhood growing up on a farm in the valley. She made the decision to move to the city to make herself useful while her fiancé Leo is away fighting in the war. While for now she works as a flaw detector at the glass factory, she has plans to go overseas as a volunteer.

Leo:  Clare and Leo grew up on neighbouring farms in the valley. Their story is very much the traditional “boy next door” story, until the day comes when Leo signs up to join the war.

Would Leo and Clare’s story become another ‘damaged man comes home from war, alienates girlfriend/wife until the explosion separates them and makes him realize what a fool he’s been‘? No, it would not. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that story… but I’ve already read that one twice.)

But neither is the war kept in the background of this story; every third chapter is of Leo overseas, his experience in the trenches, his memories of home.

Clare’s part depicts the brutal waiting and wondering of the ones left at home; and the longing for a loved one.

But Clare doesn’t spend all her time waiting and wondering – she becomes preoccupied by her own troubles after losing an eye in the explosion.

The war in Europe ground on in the trenches. At home, it was fought with the weapons of waiting: hope, blind faith, superstition. For Clare, the waiting was over. Waiting had become her habit, an instrument that she had had to learn to master, to continue the small tasks of day-to-day living. Now she plucked at vacant air. She cried soundlessly, hot tears running from her empty eye onto her pillow.

Clare willed herself to ebb back into sleep. Maybe she would wake to the world the way it was.

Both Clare and Leo grow and change over the course of two years into fully weathered and experienced individuals.

The life they had planned together was the life of another man. He was someone else now. He could not imagine how the two men could become one again.

While Leo’s at war with Germany, Clare is at war with her own ‘demons’; after losing her eye she develops Charles Bonnet Syndrom. Not well known or understood at the time, Clare feels like she’s going crazy and becomes extremely anxious. Sometimes her anxiety was so palpable on the page that I had to put the book down for a breather.

Before bed, when she looked in her mirror, the patch was the black mark they made in the packing room before they threw flawed glass in the barrel for melting down again.

Lying, each in its small square of space in a wooden box were twenty glass eyes in green, blue, brown, amber. Ada [Clare’s mother] stepped back. In repose, the white glass discs with their vivid irises had tipped slightly at different angles, as if searching each other out. Released from the dark drawer, they scanned the room wildly. One, steely grey, stared straight up at Ada accusingly.

One of the ways Clare learns to control her anxiety is through art. She enrols in an art class at the Victoria School of Art and Design (later Nova Scotia Scool of Art and Design) where she meets Arthur Lismer and Mary Riter Hamilton.

She drew the closed eye, with its flaccid gaze, as if it had given up on seeing rather than been blinded, then moved to the open eye. Over and over she looked down at the paper then fastened the gaze back on itself. She did this so many times she became irritated with the woman for looking away, and then for veiling herself, for trying to hide something from her. But the artisit saw it; she saw the longing in the woman’s face and how tired she was of waiting.

Fred: At the age of six, Fred and his parents came over to Canada from Germany. A quiet, solitary man, he has recently moved to Halifax from Ontario to work in the glass factory.

After the explosion, Fred divides his time between the art school where he occasionally runs into Clare, and time spent helping with the aftermath of the explosion. He spends hours with Arthur Barnstead at the make-shift morgue at Chebucto School helping survivors identify their loved one’s remains.

As Fred and Clare become friends, there is a growing fear and mistrust of foreigners in the city. As Fred becomes increasingly targeted with suspicion, Clare must figure out who she is and where she stands in this new post-war, post-explosion city.

The author has painted a fascinating portrait of growth and industry, tragedy and trauma, art and healing. The characters are faced with so much in such a short time, (some of which is unbearably sad) they have no choice but to grow and adapt, to accept and move on.

This then is how time changes us, she thought… As if we move though a drawing, the outline of childhood filling in, creating a layered painting we had never imagined, surprising even ourselves.

It must have been an interesting time to be in Halifax, but I’m glad I wasn’t there.

Halifax 2017 (photographed by Kate MacKinnon Sunabacka)

What inspired Alison Watt to tell this story? As I wrote this novel, we were approachng the hundredth anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, and we now see the long shadow it (and the war from which it sprang) has cast on our own time in new ways. Those events reach into my own life – by the simple fact that I would not be here without them. My grandfather was a merchant seaman from the Shetland Islands, and my grandmother, Rosclena (Roxy) Holmes, was a rural girl who went to the city after the explosion to fill one of the many empty jobs. They met in Halifax in 1918.

Thank you to Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book!


Further Reading:

Alison Watt: biologist, painter, writer

Books behind the writing of Dazzle Patterns at 49th Shelf

Halifax Explosion Reading List: A List of books, both fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children, about the Halifax Explosion.

Review at Buried in Print: “The thing with an explosion is that it comes out of nowhere. And that’s exactly what happens in Alison Watt’s debut novel.

Review at Pickle Me This: “I loved this book, the art of its tapestry, all of it leading toward an ending that was absolutely perfect.”

35 thoughts on “Dazzle Patterns by Alison Watt

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I did! I wanted to take that opportunity to highlight a few books I’ve loved that weren’t getting listed for awards.

      That’s the best part about this project – to find out if there’s anything new for me from each story, and to see what angle each author decides to take. The only downfall is that any repetition I come across that reduces my enjoyment of the book isn’t necessarily going to have the same effect on other readers who might not have already read a gazillion of them!

  1. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds remarkable. In my ignorance, I know little or nothing about the explosion. I’m sure there must be a multitude of non-fiction accounts of it but a good piece of fiction humanises such terrible events in a way non-fiction often doesn’t quite manage.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree! There are many nonfiction accounts (I would guess many more than fictional), but I’m much more interested in reading about it in my fiction. This is a wonderful book to introduce anyone to the disaster, and just as wonderful if you already know all about it! 🙂

  2. Penny says:

    I scurried and bought this one after reading Kerry’s review. I need to push this way up the TBR pile! Should have thought of that this weekend when I was trying to figure out what to read next!

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I didn’t know you were working on this project but I love it! I have dazzle patterns on my shelf but I didn’t realize it was about the explosion. Whoa! Now I really want to read it 🙂

  4. buriedinprint says:

    My favourite part was the way she chose to conclude the story. But, then, I also really enjoyed the parts about art and the direction things went there. Thanks for linking to my review – you’re so thoughtful!

  5. Elena says:

    I had never heard about the Halifax Explosion, it seems like just another neglected historical event in my Canadian literature education (and I should fix it as soon as possible!). Thanks for highlighting this book.

  6. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I think it’s so cool that you’re reading multiple novels about this event. It was, unfortunately, one I’d never heard of before I started reading your blog regularly. I think I’d like to read one of these books someday. Do you have a favorite, or is it too hard to pick?

    • Naomi says:

      This one just might be my favourite right now. But if you prefer a book with a bigger picture of the event, sort of documentary-style, The Blue Tattoo by Steven Laffoley is also excellent!

  7. The Cue Card says:

    Wow quite a neat inspiration for Alison’s story. You’ve done a lot by reading 8 books by the time of the 100th anniversary; great job. It’s refreshing to hear that they were all quite different takes on it. But the pain/suffering in the stories seems almost overwhelming.

    • Naomi says:

      It can be overwhelming, but most of the books don’t dwell on the suffering. Also there are so many good stories that come out of it – miraculous survivals and good samaritan type stories.

  8. Grab the Lapels says:

    I think I recently read about the explosion is Smithsonian Magazine. They did brief stories on the biggest explosions in the world… Or was it busy military explosions?? I swear I’ve heard of this! Either way, I enjoyed your review and liked how you set the tone with the quote about people going off to work and pushing babies in buggies.

  9. DoingDewey says:

    I know I’ve said something like this before, but I’m always inspired by your deep reading on particular themes, whether by topic or for bookish awards. I’m not yet sure how I want to incorporate that idea into my reading next year. I fight to balance reading deeply with wanting to read every shiny new things 🙂

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