Review | Katherine Harvey’s debut novel ‘Quiet Time’: think ‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ reimagined by Kathy Acker


Review | Katherine Harvey’s debut novel ‘Quiet Time’: think ‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ reimagined by Kathy Acker

A little more than halfway through “Quiet Time,” the debut novel from Newfoundland author Katherine Alexandra Harvey, the narrator takes a trip into the bush to hunt rabbits. Grace, 8 at the time, is at first perplexed by the snare her grandfather shows her with its noose-like wire contraption to trap the animals; she would much rather be making snow angels than hunting, a stance that rouses her grandfather’s ire. When they do trap a rabbit, Grace is horrified by her grandfather’s intention to cut its throat with a pocket knife. “This is how the world works,” the old man tells his young companion remorselessly. “Kill or be killed.”

It is a lesson Grace will learn repeatedly over the course of Harvey’s blistering, unflinching narrative. The child who wanted nothing more than to make snow angels on a snowy day, will grow up to develop mental illnesses that run the gamut from major depression to borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (as a teenager and young woman, Grace develops a habit of obsessively counting things in her immediate surroundings to distract herself from the pain of her situation). She will abuse cocaine and alcohol and fall into a tumultuous relationship with a painter named Jack who enjoys tying her up with leather belts during sex. She will take to cutting and, on at least one occasion, attempt suicide.

One need not be a committed formalist to note the way Harvey’s chosen mode of presentation cleaves to her subject’s fractured and anxious approach to the world around her. The narrative is broken down into short sections arranged out of chronology, so that the reader is shuttled furiously between Grace’s childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Grace wants to be a writer; though the traditional bildungsroman focuses on the education of a male artist, Harvey has no problem filtering the tropes and tactics of the form in a story devoted to the coming-of-age of a young woman. The result reads something like “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” reimagined by Kathy Acker.

The literary techniques Harvey, who serves as executive director of the ReLit Awards, marshals to convey Grace’s psychodrama on the page are sophisticated, even if they do not always land quite so smoothly. There is a strain of vampirism that attaches to characters in the novel, not least Grace, who not only habitually cuts herself, but is fascinated with blood; at one point Jack refers to her as “my little bloodlover.” When Grace slices her finger on a shard of broken glass, Jack sucks the blood from the wound in a scene that resounds with a later moment in which Grace uses a razor to slice her arm. The invocation of broken glass, along with a shattered mirror at one other point in the novel, provides a synecdoche for the book’s entire structure.

Harvey is also fond of parallel montage, doubling symbols and motifs across different parts of her narrative. The belts Jack uses to bind Grace during sex find an ironic inversion in the restraints she is placed in after suffering a psychotic break. Twice the word “veracity” is used to describe the exterior physical world (trees shaking in the first instance; thunder and lightning in the second). This is a bit puzzling, though it’s possible to assume that Grace’s unsettled mind more readily locates truth in nature than in the depredations of her fellow human beings, whether they be family members or lovers.

Harvey does not shy away from the more violent or self-destructive aspects of her central character, nor is she afraid to make Grace appear unsympathetic. All of which makes the final stages of the book, in which the character finds a kind of easy, Afterschool Special strain of redemption a bit of a letdown. Still, for most of its duration, Harvey’s assaultive, angry debut acts as a splash of cold water shocking its reader out of complacency in the best way possible.

Steven W. Beattie is a writer in Stratford, Ontario


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Credit: Review | Katherine Harvey’s debut novel ‘Quiet Time’: think ‘The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ reimagined by Kathy Acker