Various Positions by Martha Schabas

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

When I opened Martha Schabas’ debut novel, Various Positions, my first reaction was wariness: the book is written in the present tense. Unlike some people, I don’t find the present tense irritating by itself, but it can often distract a reader’s attention and interrupt the reading pleasure (partly, I think, because it needs so many auxiliary verbs and is therefore less immediate than the more concise simple past tense). If you’re going down a slide, you don’t want to feel every join and screw that’s holding the thing together, you just want to enjoy the sensation of sliding. Once I was a few pages in, however, I stopped noticing the tense: Schabas is one of the writers who can use it well.

Various Positions, by Martha Schabas, Doubleday Canada, 361 pages, $22

As Various Positions opens, fourteen-year-old Georgia Slade is struggling with the sudden interest in sex at her high school, where parties have begun to feature a disturbing game called Chicken, and is about to audition for the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. Her parents are fighting: her mother, Lena, is depressed and her father, Lawrence, whom she worships, is utterly uninterested in her audition, since ballet is feminine rather than feminist, and he wants (or thinks he wants) his daughters to be serious-minded.

Georgia is one of very few students to be accepted by the academy, and is looking forward to a serious environment in which to concentrate on her dancing. She is therefore nonplussed to find out that the other girls talk about boys instead of focusing on their dancing. She suspects that the male teacher, Roderick, can somehow tell that they aren’t dedicated enough, so she focuses on being a dancer rather than a girl, but soon a chance comment from Lena, embittered by Lawrence’s infidelity, makes Georgia notice boys’—and men’s—interest in her. When she googles for more information, she concludes that her former assessment was misguided: sex must be everywhere, so she must behave in a way that attracts Roderick. Trapped between her family’s uncompromising feminism and the omnipresence of sex and misogyny in the wider world, Georgia doesn’t realise that she has no baseline of normal behaviour. What she does next is shocking in its mixture of naivety and awfulness, affecting not just her but the whole school.

This book is a very assured debut, full of those dreadful moments of realisation that mark growing up: that the world isn’t at all how you thought it was, but instead is messy, unfair, uncontrollable and incomprehensibly different from your expectations. Schabas allows Georgia to speak for herself, showing how the polarisation in ways of thinking about sex is a problem rather than a solution. In this book, the feminist (and concerned family) position is akin to the position of abstinence-only education. Both think they are showing girls how not to be victims; neither understands that mild interest in sex is not the same thing as wanting to have sex, and that a lack of information and culture of extreme disapproval results in girls having sex (and babies) even when they don’t want to. The adults in this book don’t understand that Georgia’s experience of the world is incredibly limited. They don’t recognise that their morals and advice come from a position of overview and lived experience and as such cannot possibly help Georgia make real decisions.

At the end of the book, Georgia makes everything right before moving on to new things. Because the novel’s subject matter is largely unexplored from this perspective in literary fiction, which usually deals with teenage sex by mixing titillation and disapproval from an unimplicated grown-up distance, I would have liked to see the novel extend a bit further into the consequences of Georgia’s actions, to see the lasting effects–on her career, her emotional life, the other people affected by what she did–of the adult-world crisis she precipitated. But this is a tiny quibble, and is probably another book entirely. Shabas more than justifies her inclusion in the Canadian women to watch list with this excellent and important debut.

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