With My Back to the World by Sally Cooper

Three stories, three women, three different places and times.

It’s 2010 Hamilton Ontario, and Rudie spends her day in a frenzy, getting ready for the most important event of her life – she is going to finally meet her daughter Roselore. Rudie and her husband Leo have adopted a girl from Haiti, and as a result of the upheaval caused by the earthquake, Roselore and some other children are being brought to Canada ahead of schedule. Rudie and Leo will be flying to Ottawa later that day to meet her. In addition, today of all days, Rudie is dealing with a couple of needy street kids, a racist father, and an old flame who has come back and insists on hanging around.

“You chose well,” he said as she stopped beside him. She reflected on all the ways he might mean that comment. Her house? To meet with him? Leo? All of it, every choice?

It’s 1974 New Mexico, and Agnes Martin thought she was going to spend her day like all the days before it, but she was wrong. An acquaintance from her past shows up with her 7-year-old son – his father had been Agnes’s close friend in New York. The boy’s mother leaves him with Agnes, with no sign of where she’s gone or whether she’s coming back. So Agnes spends her day with the boy. Her feelings about the boy and the memories and thoughts he brings up in her nudge her closer to the inspiration she needs to start painting again. (It is interesting that the one woman who is not a mother is the one we get to witness being one.)

This was joy, this looking at nothing spectacular, and nothing more than what it was, even the boy. Especially him. Everything else fell away, and she could stare for hours with interest, the way she’d long hoped for people to engage with her work.

It’s 1877 Minden Ontario, and Ellen is washing her husband’s dead body, getting it ready for burial. He has been killed in an accident at work. Ellen appears surprisingly detached about it considering her warm feelings for her husband. On the other hand, the grief she might feel for her husband doesn’t compare to the grief she still feels for their daughter who died in a fire not long before she came to join her husband in this remote logging community. One gets the feeling that Ellen is only partly existing – the other part gone away somewhere with her daughter.

She hadn’t felt this alone before, not even riding in the carriage over the bumpy roads north from her city home toward her husband waiting in the woods. Not even when she was ash-covered, as two men pried her burnt, silent daughter from her breast. Not even in the church pew waiting to hear God’s voice as promised.

How are these three women connected? As much as I was curious about the connection, I was also content to follow their stories separately. Covering one full day of each of their lives, Sally Cooper manages to create a full portrait of who these women are; each story exploring ideas about women, art, motherhood, and faith.


Further Reading: 

An interview with Sally Cooper in the Hamilton Review of Books where Cooper talks about art-making and motherhood, her own experience with adoption, and the struggle between passion versus stability.

With both art-making and motherhood, there is that delicious blend of conscious planning (… ) and intuitive surrender.

As writers, choosing which story to tell means a constant falling away, of the parts we don’t show, the parts we infer, the parts we change and shape to bring it all together. It is what we all do with the past.

Sally Cooper’s essay in Electric Lit, entitled How Books Helped Me Come to Terms with My Daughter’s Illness: “... sometimes I walk myself up to the edge of the memory now, not to wallow in pity or fear, though that’s part of it, but to remind myself of how improbable and blessed survival is.

Thank you to Wolsak and Wynn for sending me a copy of the book!

33 thoughts on “With My Back to the World by Sally Cooper

  1. Laura says:

    This sounds really intriguing. There seem to be a few upcoming books with this theme of women far apart in place and time but linked thematically (I’m thinking of Jessie Burton’s and Evie Wyld’s new novels, but I’m sure there are others as well!)

    • Naomi says:

      I love the idea… and there are so many ways it could go.

      I didn’t know Evie Wyld had a new book out – I loved her last one!

      • Laura says:

        It’s not out yet, was meant to be September 2019 but now pushed to 2020 😦 It also may or may not be called The Bass Rock! I also loved All The Birds, Singing so very excited for it.

  2. BookerTalk says:

    Interesting that the stories worked individually as well as working as part of the whole novel. I see a lot of books that have different timelines/characters that are meant to meld but they don’t always succeed….

    • Naomi says:

      I thought it was good! But I can see others finding it frustrating if they are looking for more/stronger connections between the stories.

      • whatmeread says:

        I have run into a bunch of these that are marketed as novels, with very little connection to make me understand why they are novels rather than short stories. I wonder if they can enter them in more competitions if they’re novels.

    • Naomi says:

      The strands are connected through a few of the characters rather than brought together. The narratives also explore similar themes.

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    I’m reading something similar at the moment, (The Yield by Tara June Winch) with two timelines, but the interesting thing is that the one from the past is not the usual diary or letters, it’s a dictionary of the ancient Wiradjuri language from Australia. I didn’t think it would work, but it does…

  4. buriedinprint says:

    One of the scenes you’ve described here reminds me of a similar scene by Sheldon Currie in a novella that I’ve never forgotten. (I shan’t say which one because if you haven’t read it, it could be a spoiler and, if you have read it, you’ll know which one I mean.) This sounds like it’s right up my proverbial street!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I think you’d like this one. No doubt you will eventually get to it!
      I haven’t read anything by Sheldon Currie – but I think I can guess which one you’re referring to. Now I feel an urgent need to read it!

      • buriedinprint says:

        Ohmygosh. I love love love LOVE that story. That one we’re not naming. And, really, it seems like one you would love even more than I. (Because of the quality that you appreciate in a story which I struggle with more often than not.)

    • Naomi says:

      The interesting thing is… there are moving parts in each woman’s story, but tempered by the flaws of the characters. Everyone here is wholly human.

  5. Karissa says:

    This sounds potentially really interesting. Did the connection make sense or did it end up feeling like three separate stories? Sometimes with books like this it seems like the author had too many ideas and sometimes it works.

    • Naomi says:

      They *could* be three separate stories, but are much more meaningful together because of the themes running through them. And the connections that are there make sense!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s