Jane Rule’s 1987 Memory Board was recommended to me as the novel I should start with when approaching this Canadian lesbian writing legend who passed away in 2007. I followed the advice of the professors who gave me a quick Jane Rule 101 via facebook (thanks Wendy and Douglass!) and read Memory Board before being familiar with any of Rule’s other writing, so I can’t confirm (yet) that for me this is indeed her finest work. I can say, though, that it is definitely a book written by an experienced writer in firm control of her craft and the narrative at hand. Although it’s a novel, Memory Board is also a calculated psychological character study that has more going on in the heads and hearts of the characters than anything conventionally called action. There are a few events, of course, but Rule deals with these developments in such an understated manner that even the revelation that one of the minor characters has AIDS doesn’t feel as shocking as it ought to.
Memory Board is essentially the story of the reconciliation of twins, David and Diana, who are in their sixties living in Vancouver in the mid 80s. For most of their adult lives they have been effectively estranged, seeing each other only on their birthday, because David’s wife accused Diana and her partner Constance of being lesbians, and banished them from her house; it’s unclear exactly what Diana is most upset about: being called what she is and refuses to name, or the fact that her docile brother fails to try to mend this rift until after his wife’s death. Rule tells this story by describing everyday details in a fairly detached and distant tone. I wouldn’t call the book unemotional exactly, but I certainly wouldn’t call it visceral either. Its perspective is not one involved with the events of the novel but is rather omniscient—really God-like in the sense of that word. The way that Rule writes is quite the opposite of the experimental and rhizomatic style of her fellow west coast queer feminist writer Daphne Marlatt (whose novel Ana Historic I review here); in fact, Rule’s style is more what I would consider conventionally masculine. I have to say I prefer Marlatt’s prose to Rule’s, but Rule does do bare-bones, straightforward clean writing very well.
Memory Board is about much more than Diana’s sexuality, but I found the novel’s interrogation of queer politics and sexual identity to be the most interesting aspect. Despite the fact that she has been in a same-sex relationship for forty years, has always been attracted to women, and has been estranged from her twin brother and his family (including his children and grandchildren) because of homophobic prejudice, Diana steadfastly rejects the idea of claiming a lesbian or gay identity. She even refuses to admit a commonality with a friend of her great-nephew who has just been diagnosed with AIDS (little more than a death sentence in the mid-80s, remember); she tells her brother: “I wouldn’t say, even to that dying boy … that, yes, I’m gay or queer or homosexual or lesbian. I am Diana Crown, a proud woman nearly turned to stone, but for Constance.” I’m not sure whether this admission makes me more sad or angry. A twenty-year-old has just been told he has two years to live and she won’t help make him feel less alone by offering to share that she, too, is gay.
Like the short story “Virginia” in Anne Fleming’s collection Pool-Hopping, Memory Board is dealing with different generational takes on queerness; Diana’s understanding of her sexuality is dated, but it’s both because the novel was written in the 80s and because Diana is in her sixties in the present of the novel. It is very hard to disentangle what is at least partially Diana’s internalized homophobia and her right to define her identity, sexual or otherwise. The other women in the novel suffer from similar difficulties trying to be independent; David’s daughters appear totally unaffected by the feminist and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s and Vancouver seems to be a provincial, ignorant town instead of the diverse, thriving metropolis as you might know it today. David, Diana’s brother, regrets the sheltered way he has allowed his daughters to be brought up and he attempts to educate them and himself about queer issues by reading a gay newspaper, something Diana finds ridiculous. At this and other instances in the novel I found it hard to identify with Diana–this clearly exposes my generational position–but, I always found her interesting, which is a testament to Rule’s powers as a novelist.
If you’d like a detailed glimpse of a very unfamiliar Vancouver–an older, less queer one, and of a unique queer perspective—an aging lesbian couple in their sixties struggling with issues of loss and memory—Memory Board will certainly deliver. Whether or not you will be able to connect to their experiences depends both on your receptiveness to Rule’s skills as a writer and your own imagination.