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Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte, eds. Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic.

Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte, eds. Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 2009. xxvi + 297 pp. $38.95.

Like irony, the gothic is a style adaptable to any literary situation, especially when its romantic horrors are filtered through Freud's influential essay on the uncanny and rendered by modernist strategies of defamiliarization and estrangement. "Gothic" is a bottle that can be filled with many potions, with the complication that the bottle is likely to be cracked; that is, its grotesque forms can be interpreted so as to both demystify and remystify accepted beliefs. In earlier Canadian studies it was used to explore the haunted wilderness, a land reputedly inhabited by its lack of ghosts but enjoying the literary benefits of isolation, bad weather, and inbreeding. In Unsettled Remains, an intriguing collection of essays, the "spectral turn" serves as a postcolonial figure exposing the historical guilt of Canada's invaders and the traumatic suffering of their victims: "[T]he uncanny is resonant in numerous postcolonial narratives precisely because it enables an emblematic articulation of fears that are, in other circumstances, unmentionable: fears about settlement, dispossession, miscegenation, and contamination" (Gerry Turcotte). The "primordial crime and uncanny secret of settler-invader society" (Brian Johnson) are compulsively displayed in its artistic nightmares, whose violence Aboriginal inhabitants are forced to re-enact in their daily lives.

The danger of summoning such a mercurial trope for what is ultimately an ethical purpose of exposing injustice is that it can become too reductive (one size fits all) or too diffuse (anything goes). Thus we find settler gothic, native gothic, northern gothic, as well as Cape Breton, catholic, anti-catholic, feminist, ethnic, Beothuk, Ukrainian, and lesbian and queer gothics, but all inviting similar ideological and psychological analyses to expose the pathology of colonial history, all seeking "to find ways of knowing, articulating, and memorializing the horrors of the past and to account for their haunting trace in the present in a meaningful and ethical way" (Shelley Kulperger). This consistency gives the volume momentum as it proceeds, as its essays often draw on the same sources although not always to reach the same conclusions. Its admirable goals of disclosure, redress, and healing are sought not just in the novels studied--the novel is the favourite form--but through the perspicacity of critics who untwist the stories' twisted, gothic shapes and put them to therapeutic use, "doing a certain kind of cultural cathartic work, enabling Canadians to speak the crime that has no name" (Cynthia Sugars). The danger of explicating the uncanny by speaking its name, however, is that it risks explaining away the sources of a novel's macabre delights by revealing what they "really" mean. "[T]he depletion of the supernatural as a source of mystery and fear" (Kulperger) is a mixed blessing. If critics are too successful in recasting the uncanny as a superstitious displacement of cultural neuroses, then they may unwittingly do the same for native spirituality, which is a major source of the Canadian gothic. It, too, may be explained away or reduced to a symptom. The critical task is even more risky because gothic forms are not neutral. They emerge from a "Eurocentric materialist context" (Jennifer Andrews) and so carry with them a legacy of imperial attitudes especially with respect to the "primitive," which they repudiate with fascinated horror. Non-native critics (everyone here, I believe) therefore must avoid succumbing to the pathology they are diagnosing, whether by being patronizing, excessively apologetic, or subtly racist. Brian Johnson judges the well-intentioned Farley Mowat to be at fault in this last respect.

A corrective tactic adopted in varying degrees by the contributors to this volume is to gothicize criticism by retwisting the narrative strands they have deftly untwisted. They perform this exercise in unraveling and re-raveling in different ways. The eleven essays are divided between those studying non-native and native writers, victimizers and victims, the possessed and the dispossessed, although that distinction is blurred in ethnic gothic (Japanese, Ukrainian) where subjects are "both and neither" (Lindy Ledohowski). Non-native writers are impelled by guilt, which is a healthy response even when expressed in lurid gothic imagery, because it testifies to the continuous prick of conscience and to the value of literature, which does the pricking. Even Susanna Moodie confessed that "belief in ghosts ... must first have had its foundation in the consciousness of guilt." Feeling guilty is welcome as a lingering moral response. In that sense these essays are remarkably optimistic: they assume that repressed crimes and secrets will emerge of their own accord if only in the form of nightmare, and then "[t]he presence of the spectre ... triggers a process of remembering that eventually leads to the collective re-witnessing and ultimate working through of trauma" (Atef Laouyene). Far worse would be a joyful, Nietzschean celebration of predation without guilt, a possibility suggested in Jennifer Henderson's study of Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen, perhaps the most twisted (this is intended as a compliment) essay of the group. Native writers, but only Highway and Eden Robinson received detailed attention, explore trauma from the inside. For them the governing impulse is not guilt but the painful need to face one's monsters; the gothic is not dispelled but embraced as a source of authenticity so that "the haunted wilderness becomes a source of cultural knowledge" (Andrews). In this case the knowledge gained does not explain away the spectral but makes it a secret resource.

Apart from Charles de Guises's Le Cap au diable (1874), Sheila Watson's The Double Hook (1959), and Mowat's northern tales, the novels studied are all of recent vintage. This preference is justified by the book's declared interest in "postcolonial gothic," which may be another cracked bottle. The authors considered are Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Joy Kogawa, A.-M. MacDonald, Dionne Brand, Eden Robinson, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Tomson Highway, Michael Crummey, and Vincent Lam. I have done a disservice to the eleven contributors to Unsettled Remains by lumping all their work together, although they share the set of operating assumptions patched together here. The value of the collection is in exploring these assumptions so rigorously, in showing that something truly is at stake in studying gothic forms. The essays are also admirable individually: all are closely argued, earnest, well-documented, and scholarly.

Jon Kertzer

University of Calgary
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Author:Kertzer, Jon
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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