1917, Allison Watt, art, book review, Canada, disability, feminism, First World War, Halifax, historical accuracy, historical fiction, home front, literary fiction, spy mania
Review: Dazzle Patterns, by Allison Watt
Freehand, 2018. 339 pp. $22
Clare Holmes works in a glassworks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, a port city that buzzes with wartime traffic. Living in the big town instead of on her parents’ farm has provoked a constant, simmering conflict with Clare’s controlling mother, Ada. But Clare has plans that Ada would never dream of. The young woman is saving up for her passage to France so that she can become a Red Cross nurse and be near her soldier fiancé, Leo.
However, when a ship blows up in the harbor, the blast destroys the glassworks and a swath of town, leaving many dead. The consequences for Clare are severe and cascading. Not only does she lose an eye, which means Ada grabs her and brings her home; Clare worries that Leo won’t want her anymore; and, worse, the post-traumatic stresses sap her desire to live. Her friends hold out hope that she’ll be able to return to the glassworks, but her job there involved checking the product for flaws, and the boss isn’t the only one who doubts she can manage that with only one eye. It’s a nice twist, the flaw-checker who feels — and is — damaged herself. And she becomes so aware of her imperfection that she can hardly get out of bed, let alone function.
But Clare is nothing if not independent-minded, and Watt has put her protagonist’s inner life on vivid display. Overcoming her disability literally means Clare has to develop another way to see the world in perspective; and when you read that she takes up drawing, the metaphor gains breadth. But her adaptation of course involves how she sees herself, and this is my favorite aspect of Dazzle Patterns. Where once Clare defined the future as being Leo’s wife, or, more immediately, staying out of Ada’s clutches and becoming a nurse, she now takes a larger view. It’s as if Clare’s loss and necessary compensation for it have let her grow in unforeseeable ways, to extend the metaphor even further.
Watt’s at her best when the narrative stays in Halifax. She portrays the home front and all its fears and prejudices with a sure hand, as well as the boarding house Clare lives in, the glassworks, and the horrific aftermath of the explosion. Here’s the destruction recounted through the eyes of Fred, a glassblower whom Clare later befriends:
Walking back to his rooming house Fred saw houses fallen in upon themselves, charred like abandoned bonfires, or burnt completely away, only the chimneys flooded with black puddles of ash and snow. Standing houses stared blank-eyed, all their windows gone. Telephone poles tilted. On the street, a breadbox, a school bag, a woman’s evening shoe, black patent with a pointed toe and a velvet bow. At the corner of Agricola and West Street, Fred brushed the snow off and righted an empty baby carriage.
But I think Fred’s less successful than Clare as a character. Watt makes him a prewar German immigrant, which allows her to evoke the jingoistic suspicion of an “enemy alien” who is actually a naturalized Canadian. I like the theme and how Watt plays it, but Fred’s a bit too good to be true, as if the chief victim of the narrative must be a paragon.
Leo’s more believable as a person, but what happens to him, less so. He’s a sapper, assisting the engineer officer who tunnels under German lines. Watt’s depiction of that rings true. But the narrative fudges on what the Western Front looks and feels like, and other details are simply inaccurate. Most critically—and I don’t want to reveal too much–Watt fails to consider what a civilian’s possession of a firearm in a war zone can mean, as in getting the entire village put up against a wall. Moreover, that entire setup seems designed to alter Leo in convenient ways, whereas leaving him as he was, though messier, would add depth and conflict.
Finally, I hope that what I read is an uncorrected proof — although it doesn’t say so — and that a proofreader will catch mistakes like the constant misspelling of Fred’s German name, and the typographical and grammatical errors that crop up.
Still, I enjoyed Dazzle Patterns. The story is compelling, Watt tells it with brio, and has provided a heroine worthy of your time and attention.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.