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Book Reviews Why haven’t Canadians claimed author Jill Ciment as their own?

Body is a slight novel that feels as if it contains multitudes.

Handout

  • Title: The Body in Question
  • Author: Jill Ciment
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • Pages: 192

Why had I never heard of Jill Ciment before reading her latest, the stunningly concise The Body in Question? Ciment has written six novels, a memoir and a book of short stories to warm acclaim south of the border. Her novel Heroic Measures was chosen for Oprah’s book club. And yet all her bios begin with the fact that she was born and lived in Montreal until 1964, when she was 11 and her family moved to Los Angeles (she now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Florida). So why have we not claimed her as our own? We’ve done so with writers whose connections to Canada are far more tenuous (Rachel Cusk and Eleanor Catton, among others); we’ve nominated them for rich prizes, even. In 2010, this newspaper listed Heroic Measures under the best “international fiction” of the year. We missed the boat on this one, people, but it might not be too late to call dibs.

It’s been a long time since a novel pulled me in right off the first page as Body did. With its opening in a Florida courtroom, the novel initially has the whiff of a legal thriller. But those elements ultimately end up as the scaffolding for a surprising, emotionally resonant story about the big three: life, love and death. There’s even a mention of taxes, come to think of it. This is a novel that sheds its skin several times and each time it becomes something shinier, more immediate.

We know our 52-year-old protagonist primarily as C-2, but she’s not a robot, she’s a juror. Despite having the perfect excuse to avoid jury duty – at 86, her husband, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is enduring the flesh’s expected mortifications – C-2 doesn’t raise her hand when the question is asked. The marriage isn’t what that yawning age gap suggests. C-2 loves her husband but sees in a typically onerous duty the chance for some much-needed respite.

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(It’s always dangerous to parallel writers’ lives with their fiction – things are rarely so tidy – but similar to her protagonist, Ciment was married to a much older man, the artist Arnold Mesches, who died in 2016, so it seems reasonable to assume that that experience contributed to the viscerality and empathy of the writing here.)

Almost immediately, she feels a frisson with juror F-17, a 42-year-old anatomy professor. Sequestered with the other jurors in a low-rent motel for several weeks, where they’re deprived of internet and television, the two embark upon a series of steamy liaisons, coming perilously close to being caught on more than one occasion. Their trysting is against jury rules, of course, but they persuade themselves it’s harmless because they never discuss the case, or even tell each other their real names.

But as C-2 soon discovers, the juror’s role – requiring, as it does, analysis and detachment – is profoundly at odds with a brain awash in sex hormones; it’s a bit like writing a calculus exam on ecstasy. And the trial itself, which, unbeknownst to the jurors, is being breathlessly covered in the tabloids, is a deeply disturbing one: A teenage twin girl on the autism spectrum has been accused of murdering her baby brother for no obvious reason. A former magazine photographer who once produced art portraits of bereaved animal mothers, C-2 brings a unique lens to the case, but though she recognizes its gravity, she constantly finds herself drifting off, looking at F-17’s notes to figure out their next rendezvous. The pair even take up smoking to give themselves a reason to meet outside.

The trial proceeds, a verdict is reached. But it turns out key evidence was withheld from the jurors and now the pendulum swings the other way: There’s public outrage, and the jurors’ names are demanded. Several other twists will go unmentioned, though writing this good is pretty well spoiler-proof.

The novel pulls us in several equally compelling directions simultaneously There’s the paranoid thrill and selfishness of the affair; the lazy, knee-jerk responses of the other jurors; C-2’s guilt; and the awkward, painful return to domesticity.

Ciment plays with contrasts. The structure of the trial, for example, is at odds with a broken justice system and with the chaos of the deliberations. The public and personal collide, too: C-2 is astute when contemplating the accused’s motive for her alleged crime but doesn’t come close to fathoming her own behaviour. She judges the accused and we judge her.

Body is a slight novel that feels as if it contains multitudes. It’s a bravura performance, Ciment exercising almost flamboyant control of her material. I can’t wait to read the rest of this newly discovered Canadian author’s work.

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Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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