A Circle on the Surface by Carol Bruneau

As with Genevieve Graham’s novel, Come From Away, A Circle on the Surface is inspired by the rumours of German U-Boat sailors coming ashore along Canada’s east coast during the Second World War.

The heart of the novel, of course, is not about German soldiers, but of a marriage and how it is impacted by the circumstances in which it exists.

In 1943 Una and Enman are newlyweds. Enman has brought Una back to his hometown of Barrein to help take care of his ailing mother. Believing the situation to be temporary, Una willingly comes. But Enman decides he wants to stay and has no intention of going back to the city. Una feels betrayed by this, adding to the boredom and loneliness of a newcomer to a small village.

Hints, echos, of lost parents and grandparents in people’s faces, the voices of the dead and their speech steeped in their descendants’ genes. It made growing old easier somehow, Enman thought, being surrounded by others whose youthful experiences had been much as his had been. He didn’t need to explain himself or his past.

The story has a raw, melancholy feel to it. The reader spends a lot of time inside their heads; their thoughts and feelings right at the surface. Besides their rocky marriage, Una and Enman are fighting their own demons. Enman is grieving the loss of his friend and his mother while trying not to follow in the footsteps of his father and his taste for alcohol. Una is hiding an event from her recent past that has cast a shadow of frustration over her life. Being a woman in the 1940s is not an easy thing – especially if you want a fair chance at having a career as well as a family.

When Una and Enman finally get some news they’ve been wishing for for some time, things don’t go as they had hoped.

A dullness overcame her as she paused in the front room. Under the feeling’s spell, she imagined her uterus as a pear snapped from a twig, her spirits sinking the way the car had earlier in ruts of dried mud. In her imagination Enman whistled a country tune he claimed to hate. Who knew what Enman really thought, what he truly felt? His true feelings surfaced about as often as a whale did: a flash of fin, a bit of spray, appearing mostly to be a vague, random nothing.

A Circle on the Surface is very atmospheric, with attention to detail. I felt the heat of the summer and the isolation of Una as she strolled the empty beaches; the pervading grey grief and self-doubt of Enman as he tried to be a good husband to Una yet fell short;  and the possessive, cloistered feeling of the village as they observed, judged, and supported each other.

I wanted to keep Una company. I wanted to cheer Enman up. I wanted to save Hannah from her uncle, and Hannah’s uncle from himself. I wanted to give Una a smart phone so she could keep in touch with Kit. I wanted to give Una her own car, so she could drive into the city whenever she wanted. I wanted to give Una’s employer a piece of my mind. I wanted to hide the liquor from Enman. I wanted to find Una and Enman a house that didn’t look and smell like Enman’s dead mother. I wanted to hang my laundry on a clothesline by the ocean.

Dr. Snow preached the benefits of exercise, but maybe such a frigid swim was not so wise? Yet the water made her weightless, carefree. She was a floating paper doll until the cold bogged her down and Snow’s cautionary words about “hostile womb” left her feeling waterlogged. Now she was driftwood washing up, the sun and sand and the barbed cold pricking her all over.

A Circle on the the Surface is the kind of story that lingers for days after the last page is read.

A few good lines…

Wearing a holey pair of panties on her head to keep her curlers in place, she rattled the newspaper in Una’s face.

It must be noon, the way her shadow pooled underfoot as though she had melted into it.

Marge would be spinning in her grave, virtually tilling the turf.

Was it the wisdom of plants people lacked, the gift plants possessed for striving towards light?

As far as the sea knew, she hadn’t lost her job and her parents or acquired a husband, and had not a care in the world.

Further Reading: 

As with A Bird on Every Tree, A Circle on the Surface has already been getting a lot of positive attention.  The Quill & Quire calls A Circle on the Surfacea quietly brilliant novel driven not by action but by close observation and insight into character“. James at The Miramichi Reader says that it “may be Ms. Bruneau’s most accessible novel yet“. The Star states: “Told with a meticulous eye for detail, Bruneau’s voice is simple, elegant, arresting.

In Rohan Maitzen’s post about A Circle on the Surface, I was struck by her last sentence: “Bruneau frames it with the point of view of an older and somewhat wiser Enman, still struggling to understand his wife’s experience but strangely, in his self-consciousness about that effort, a better husband to her now than he could be before.”

In an interview with Elissa Barnard: “Bruneau is interested in why history is relevant to today. Her themes of lack of opportunities for women, substance abuse and considering parenting in a difficult time are highly current. “The times change but people and their problems don’t change,” she says.

28 thoughts on “A Circle on the Surface by Carol Bruneau

  1. buriedinprint says:

    Oooo, I love your “I wanted” paragraph. I wanted to copy the whole paragraph here again!

    Bruneau is someone I’m convinced I want to read from end-to-end. I was disappointed that she isn’t appearing singly at one of the festival events here for TIFA this season, although she is part of a Kitchen Party which goes from 9-11 one evening (it sounds delightful, but past my bedtime for an early morning the next day). I’ll definitely keep an eye for this one, but I kind of want to go back to Purple for Sky (I’ve only read her short stories so far, although I’ve peeked into some of the others now and then).

    • Naomi says:

      I couldn’t help but think they’d do better in the city, away from the village, not just because Una is happier there, but I think it would also have given Enman some distance and distraction from whatever is pulling him to the bottle.
      Isn’t the cover pretty? It looks like felt art to me.

    • Naomi says:

      As I was flipping through the book, choosing which passages to include, I got lost again in the writing. Even more so when reading it for itself and not just to find out what’s going to happen.

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    A women isolated so early into marriage, tricked into a kind of captivity, it sounds like so many woman’s lives who under the spell of young love change their lives significantly, only to find themselves stuck. So tough. I remember reading Salt Creek, about a woman who followed her husband onto a remote Australian farm and you lived it while reading. All those things you hope will save them, knowing that nothing will.

    • Naomi says:

      Absolutely. And I think the timing of it is a big factor – right at the beginning before the couple even has time to nurture their marriage. Suddenly on caregiving duty with a mother-in-law you’ve just met in a tiny village where you know no one.

    • Naomi says:

      I love it, too! It has such a nice feel to it. I tried to determine where the cover art came from, but couldn’t find anything. But it has the look of felt art, don’t you think?

  3. annelogan17 says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a Carol Brunea book, which is really too bad, because this sounds like my favourite kind of writing-sort of reminds me of Bonnie Bernard, have you read her?

    • Naomi says:

      I read one of Bernard’s books a long time ago – I can’t even remember it.
      A Circle on the Surface is as good a book as any to start with Carol Bruneau. Especially with your interest in reading about marriage!

  4. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    A beautiful review! I second Laila, the quotations are beautiful. I can understand the appeal of the writing and atmospheric nature of this story. Is this story told from both Una and Enman’s perspectives? Are there other characters whose minds we get to enter?

    While you mention the setting and the descriptions, you don’t mention the history. Lately, I’ve been running into a slew of historical fiction where the “historical” aspect is almost irrelevant to the story. How well does Bruneau weave the historical elements into this tale?

    • Naomi says:

      The historical aspect is the WWII home front. Enman has been in the war and is home again although the war is not yet over. And there are rumours and evidence of German soldiers in the area. Una may or may not bump into one of them. 😉

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Ooooh. That’s entrancing. Yes, I definitely want to read this book now. I find the end of wars fascinating. Even though someone somewhere said, ‘The war is over!” it takes weeks for people to stop fighting. Or, well, it did before the internet.

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