Honestly where should I start with this devastating masterpiece, Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, originally published in 1996? I recently read this book — or rather listened to the audiobook — for the second time after first reading it in my early twenties. Actually, that’s not the first time I encountered the book. I have a distinct memory of getting a hold of a copy sometime when I was in high school and sitting down on this grassy area facing the ocean behind the grocery store in the small town I grew up in (it was a really nice stretch of impossibly green and perfect looking grass that my friends and I used to call “the movie grass”). I know I didn’t make it very far into the book, because it gave me an icky and creepy feeling right from the beginning; it turns out this feeling was entirely warranted, so good job teen me on the close reading skills.
I think when I finally read it through the first time I already knew that there were queer characters or a queer plotline of some kind, which is maybe what allowed me to persevere. I probably was also more steeled against reading books with disturbing content by that time. At any case, I read it and honestly I can’t really remember now much of anything about that reading experience. I think I probably just thought it was very good “literature” (imagine that with a posh British accent) as my English honours undergrad degree that taught me to assess.
Having read the book years and years before starting this blog, I had had it on my to-reread-TBR for a while, since I felt that I needed to re-read it before reviewing it on Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, which I felt was necessary because it’s such a big book not only for queer Can Lit specifically but Can Lit in general and perceptions of Can Lit outside Canada (thanks, I guess, to Oprah for that??). And what better way to revisit a book than to encounter it in a different form: audiobook.
The audiobook is performed by Cassandra Campbell. (There’s also another audiobook version with Nikki James, but I decided I preferred Campbell after listening to excerpts of both readers. If you’ve listened to the other audiobook, I’d love to hear what the whole thing was like!) Cassandra Campbell does really an INCREDIBLE job with the audiobook adaptation. It’s not often that you have one voice actor doing the narration and all the different character voices and they really nail it. This book in particular requires various different accents and dialects (Nova Scotia Scottish, New York jazz age African American, Lebanese Canadian Arabic speakers, and others).
Campbell does a perfect job that makes you realize just how much skill is behind the seemingly effortless way she pulls it all off. She also had just the right touch of foreboding and mystery in her voice that also wasn’t without its humour that brought MacDonald’s prose to life. Like all of the best art, Campbell excels to the extent that you forget you’re even listening to an audiobook with one person doing everyone’s voices and you just fall right into the story. If you’ve been thinking about re-reading this book or reading it for the first time, I would HIGHLY recommend Campbell’s audiobook version. (But don’t say I didn’t warn you that it’s over 20 hours long; this is a long-ass book).
I don’t often read this kind of dark literary fiction these days, to be honest. For whatever reason, my taste for the depressing lit fic that I used to gobble up when I was younger is largely gone. So reading this kind of book again was hard, harder than I thought it would be. I don’t know how Ann-Marie MacDonald writes beautifully about such dark things, telling the intergenerational story of this fucked up family.
For anyone who hasn’t read it, or for whom it’s been a long time, here’s the official blurb:
They are the Pipers of Cape Breton Island — a family steeped in lies and unspoken truths that reach out from the past, forever mindful of the tragic secret that could shatter the family to its foundations. Chronicling five generations of this eccentric clan, Fall on Your Knees follows four remarkable sisters whose lives are filled with driving ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their experiences will take them from their stormswept homeland, across the battlefields of World War I, to the freedom and independence of Jazz-era New York City.
I didn’t think I remembered Kathleen, Frances, Mercedes, and Lily (the four sisters) until I had made my way through the first parts of the novel, which focus on their parents, at which point everything about these young women — their complexities, their sharp personalities, their joys, their mistakes — came rushing back. At the same time as this novel is a distinctly epic, sweeping look at a certain period of the late 1800s and early 1900s that has a very bird’s eye historical view, it’s also a deeply character-driven story, and not only of the four girls at its centre. I was especially struck this time around by complex and honest secondary characters like Adelaide, Leo, and Teresa Taylor and the father of Materia (the girls’ mother).
(Be forewarned, it’s difficult to talk about this book without spoilers, and since it came out 20 years ago, I’m assuming many of you have already read it. This review from now on includes MAJOR spoilers. Also, content warning for incest and sexual assault).
Reading Fall On Your Knees a second time was perhaps worse than the first time. I mean, the first time is awful, to be sure; and I don’t mean the reading experience is awful, because MacDonald does such an amazing job somehow weaving beauty out of darkness. But overall this is a dark book, full of people making horrible mistakes with gigantic consequences and making difficult choices and living under tough circumstances, not including the gut-wrenching reveal near the end.
The way MacDonald has structured the book made reading it for the second time, for me, REALLY hard. First time readers gradually get tidbits of what happens to Kathleen; you find out her father brought her home from New York, you find out she fell in love there, you find out she was really pursuing her career as a singer despite her music teacher being a jackass, you find out she was pregnant, you find out she died in childbirth back in Nova Scotia. Honestly, that story itself is sad enough. But the shock readers get at the end, where MacDonald reveals that it was Kathleen’s father who raped her and was the father of the child(ren) who were the cause of her death is just unbelievably devastating. It’s devastating even when you know the whole time he’s a fucking creep. I can’t believe I don’t have a memory of discovering that when I read it ten years ago.
But knowing that fact, the whole time that MacDonald is building up the narrative, releasing small bits of information about Kathleen, and especially throughout the final sections of the novel that take the form of Kathleen’s diary while in New York and falling in love with Rose is fucking heartbreaking. My knowledge of what happens tainted everything in the book, especially the Kathleen and Rose sections, which in and of themselves are so beautiful and lovely. Their first bristly interactions, Kathleen’s startling realization she’s attracted to Rose, their musical collaborations, Rose’s pointed comments about Kathleen’s naivety about race, everything about their friendship and romance that is so amazing and real and wonderful. Ann-Marie MacDonald, why did you want to break my heart this way??
Ultimately revisiting Fall On Your Knees made me think about what kind of stories get praised and what kind of stories get published by big publishing houses by and about marginalized voices, particularly people of colour and/or LGBTQ2IA+ people. Perhaps this is just a function of literary fiction in general; I mean, it does have a reputation for being a sad genre, as if sadness and horribleness are the stuff of serious literature but joy and wonder are not. But the heartbreaking stories also seem to be so much of the work praised by the white/straight/cis majority, as if stories about queer, trans, and people of colour are only worthwhile if they are about their suffering.
I don’t know if I can stomach stories like this about queer characters anymore. I don’t know if I want to stomach them. What I want is a book in which Kathleen and Rose live happily ever after in NYC and have fabulous music careers. Why can’t I have that?
I’m not saying I don’t still agree with my opening statement, that Fall On Your Knees is a masterpiece. It is, in print and audiobook format. It’s not that I think you shouldn’t read it, if you can stomach it. But fuck is it ever dark. And I don’t know if I want that kind of darkness in my reading life anymore, you know?