I can’t lie: reading Marion Douglas’s novel Dance Hall Road was a struggle. I guess I might as well admit upfront that I skimmed and selectively read my way through the last hundred pages or so. I did faithfully read the first 380 pages, though, which is pretty good perseverance, I think. The book was slow-going from the beginning, and never really did a good job of holding my attention. If I hadn’t had the intention of reviewing it, I’d have abandoned it about 100 pages in. That said, I did feel like the novel had potential, and I did get a bit excited for a while in the middle when I was hopeful about a pending lesbian romance. Unfortunately, the book managed to squash my hopes; what’s more, the style eventually began to annoy me. Let me explain:
Dance Hall Road is a novel set in rural Ontario in the seventies. It’s kind of Victorian in scope and conception, something that I am totally up for (I read and loved George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a novel that is too much for a lot of people). However, in the end I felt that Douglas’s novel could probably have been cut in half. It really could have done with some fastidious editing. I get that Douglas is setting the scene and introducing a vast array of characters, but it’s not a good sign if you feel like the novel hasn’t really gotten started yet and you’re over a hundred pages in.
Although at first I appreciated Douglas’s use of free indirect discourse to let us into the minds of her characters, after a while the style became wearisome. It’s an interesting narrative strategy, but I feel like Douglas overused it, constantly narrating mundane thoughts–irrelevant to the plot–from every character’s point of view. Also, eventually all of the town’s characters seemed neurotic in an oddly similar way, despite the other differences of character and personality that Douglas depicts in detail. The rambling, tangential style—also reminiscent of Victorian novels—that goes along with the use of free indirect discourse was just plain exhausting to read. I really wish Douglas and/or her editor had made the decision to be more economical with words.
The novel is occasionally funny but characters such as Alfred Beel, a fifty-year-old war veteran who’s in love with an eighteen-year-old, is just pathetic, creepy, and annoying. Not in a darkly funny way, which I suppose is how he’s ideally supposed to be read—to me, though, he was more of a generic pedophile, a self-absorbed delusional man I had little interest in reading about. A lot of the narrative is just plain depressing, and it doesn’t have that humour to cut the edge of the darkness; Miriam Toews does small-town strangeness, teenage angst, and dark humour extremely well in A Complicated Kindness. Dance Hall Road simply doesn’t succeed in achieving this balance.
Okay, there’s a bit of lesbian action in this book, but I was pretty disappointed with the ratio, considering this book drags on for a nearly painful almost 500 pages. Also, the gender non-conforming woman is portrayed as pathetic; you feel sorry for her in that same way you do when you get caught watching someone perform on stage and they’re awful and you feel embarrassed for them and all you can do is sit there and watch. It’s pretty much one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world. I really didn’t want to feel that way about Maddy, the lesbian character, but that’s how Douglas portrays her. And then the town accuses her of doing this awful thing, and it’s like, I don’t want to read about lesbians that the town thinks are pathetic and weird and the kind of person who would [spoiler alert] kill a girl who was made captain of the basketball team instead of her. This is simply not the kind of queer story I want to read and I don’t think this is the direction queer women’s literature should be moving in.
I also feel like Douglas could have done more with the historical setting: for most of the novel, it didn’t seem to make a difference. I would have liked to see Douglas mine this historical period and connect it with some of the issues it deals with, such as depression, suicide, violence, and queerness. What’s the point of setting the book in the past if it doesn’t factor into the narrative? Anne Fleming’s Anomaly, for example, is a great example of a novel set in the seventies that does some interesting things with the historical and cultural contexts.
I said this novel had potential; it does. Douglas can write, and she has a knack for describing strange, remarkable thoughts and the kinds of things everyone does but no one really talks about. This passage, for example, is great:
Rose wondered: did Maddy know the term deciduous as it applied to teeth? She would know the tree connection for sure but not likely the baby teeth business. Deciduous teeth fall out. They were nothing more than little white leaves in the mouth. Rose loved sharing information, but ‘Did you know?’ could be insensitive, especially to someone like Maddy who came from a place like East Flax. Although it was always possible Maddy would lie and say, ‘Oh yes, I knew that, everyone knows that.’ Rose herself occasionally said things like that.
Douglas also describes Southern Ontario in an eerily perfect way that makes me at once a bit nostalgic for the time I spent in London while at the same time making me feel pretty glad I’ve left that part of the country. This passage made me feel downright icky: “They rode side by side on the empty country road, sun washed out and vague behind a sky the colour of salt. Everything humid and sticky and clotting once again, as if the landscape had forgotten it was supposed to be thinking of fall.”
In the end, such passages didn’t redeem the book for me, but they did make me feel like there’s something in Dance Hall Road that’s worth reading and that perhaps for a different kind of reader, this novel in its entirety might be a worthwhile and enjoyable read.