Book Reviews · 08/22/2011

Katzenjammered by Norma Kassirer


BlazeVOX Books, 2010

Child narrators can be some of the most interesting narrators in fiction, in the sense that they are able to reflect and refract adult situations without completely understanding what is really going on. They have both a developing awareness, which makes them pay close attention to difficult situations, and an emergent morality, which means they tend to misread or misjudge those very situations. This combination often enables them, as narrators, to deliver truly difficult subject matter to the reader without any emotional interpretation, leaving the reader to decide the extent and consequences of the situation, as well as, ultimately, reel in the fully adult understanding that comes from having already made it to the other side of the childhood-adult border. This is an excellent tool when used correctly, as Norma Kassirer has done in her novel Katzenjammered.

Katzenjammered is a furiously compact novel narrated by nine year-old Martha. The novel begins with a description of a chest of drawers and the surrounding room, the “den” as her parents like to call it, although this is giving it a little boost in status. Here is where Martha’s father spends time at a typewriter detailing his experiences of World War One for Canadian newspapers and magazines. This room, with its secrets and shadows and clutter, is a magnet to Martha. She cannot keep herself from visiting, from removing a certain key from the top drawer and using it to open the bottom drawer. She reads, feverishly and ecstatically, in an attempt to understand her father.

The story is set in 1932 and narrated in the present tense, and although Martha is a relatively believable nine year-old, mimicking the diction and expressions of the adults around her as well as speaking as her young self, she is at times disconcertingly eloquent. There are moments when what she says suggests that she is far older than her years would imply. It is tempting to consider this, if one reads too quickly, a narrative flaw. However, a careful re-read of the first chapter, the one describing the “den” reveals it to be an introduction. The only chapter written in the past tense, it provides a clue to Kassirer’s clever narrative construction. Secretly, this is not a nine year-old narrator, but a much older Martha who has chosen to embody her younger self to tell a difficult story. This narrative trick is very effective, and allows Martha to say things we wouldn’t expect her to say, like:

His imperious way with peonies never fails to impress me. He may lift his cane and point at a flower, not quite touching it, as if he is questioning it. Just once I saw him lift a red peony bloom with the tip of his cane. He leaned closer as if to carefully inspect its center. Astonishment opened in my as if I were the flower.

Or, in a slightly more subtle turn of phrase:

When I begin to have nightmares, I blame Donald and Essy for making all that fuss. They are humble little people, and they believe what I say. They are to blame for everything.

By simultaneously narrating from the far future as well as from inside the actual moments of story, Kassirer gives Martha the freedom to revisit her own progression toward a full understanding of what is going on in her family. On a purely technical and functional level, this trick also maintains a fantastic measure of suspense for the reader.

Now, going back to that last quote, why is young Martha having nightmares? Because she is obsessed with one of her father’s writings, about the time he found a headless German soldier. To spread the terror, she forces her younger sister and brother into her confidence, and soon all three children are frightened at the images that bossy Martha makes them consider.

There is a reason that Martha is obsessed with her father’s war time experience, and it goes beyond a child’s normal desire to understand a beloved but obviously stricken parent. The book is circling slowly toward a great event—an event that has made her nine year-old self the most important version of self in Martha’s entire life. This event is what the entire book is about, but this only becomes recognizable once we get to the end. And at this very moment, the adult Martha steps forward to narrate:

I close my eyes and sit quietly. Ah, I whisper, ah. Ah, I say, louder now.

And so Katzenjammered pretends, successfully and engagingly, to be about many other subjects: her mother’s difficult personality, her best friend across the street and a long parade of eccentric and marvelously described family members. It pretends to be about growing up at the tail end of Prohibition America, about walking those first few steps on the road to adolescence and what parts of that path will remain to haunt one’s adult understanding.

This kind of thematic pretending is one of the best pay-offs in fiction. That a book can simultaneously sustain several beating hearts, and then, in a quick flurry of words and pages and events, unite those syncopated beats into one convergent idea. An idea that was there, half-hidden, the entire time. This is where fiction becomes more than story, this is where it becomes art.

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Norma Kassirer lives in Buffalo, New York. The Hidden Wife, a collection of her stories with artwork by Willyum Rowe, was published by Shuffaloff Press in 1991. Other stories and poems have appeared in various journals, including Blatant Artifice, Sow’s Ear, Yellow Edenwald Field, and elsewhere. Her short story cycle Milly was published in 2008 by the Buffalo Ochre Papers. She has also written two novels for children, both published by the Viking Press: Magic Elizabeth, in 1966 (reprinted by Harper and by Knopf and Scholastic, and most recently appearing through Breakfast Serials), and The Doll Snatchers, Viking, 1969. Both of her daughters have long been engaged with writing and publishing, the cover images for Katzenjammered having been drawn by her daughter Karen as a child.

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Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator living in Switzerland. Her fiction, translations and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various journals, including Ascent, The Kenyon Review, Xenith, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Atticus Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Cerise Press and Fogged Clarity. She is the Reviews Editor here at Necessary Fiction.