Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

This dark, disturbing family saga, spanning the years 1898-1953 tells the tragedy-laden story of the Piper family of Cape Breton Island, a coal mining town off Nova Scotia. And I warn you right now, it’s not a pretty story, and if you’re prone to depression, reading this won’t help you any. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, it’s not, but the tale it tells is dark, disturbing, and bleak.

When the story begins James Piper is an eighteen year old piano tuner who grew up reading the classics to improve himself and longing for life’s finer things. He falls in love with Materia Mahmud, a Lebanese girl, and elopes with her, only to regret it later when he finds himself ashamed of his wife’s dark skin and weight gain.

Their first daughter, Kathleen, is born with the twentieth century, in 1900. In fact, the doctor has to be dragged away from a New Year’s Eve party in order to deliver her. She’s a beauty from the start, milk-white skin, red-gold hair, and green eyes, and an angel voice that’s a gift from God that James sees as her ticket to fame and fortune. Determined to give Kathleen the best of everything, a convent education, and musical training, he sends his wife out to work as an accompanist, playing the piano to silent movies, and does what he swore he would never do and takes up the pick and goes to work in the coal mines. But when Materia becomes popular, he insists that she quit.

As the story progresses, a dark, unhealthy, incestuous undercurrent ripples through James’ relationship with his firstborn. Materia senses this, and does all she can to save Kathleen. She gives James a second daughter, Mercedes in 1912, then Frances is born eleven months later, and, lastly, Lily. When Materia finds she can’t protect Kathleen, she tries to bargain with God; she’s willing to let the Devil take Kathleen, if He will only spare her other daughters.

The sisters all have interesting, well-developed personalities; the author really did a marvelous job creating her cast of characters. Mercedes is the religious one, a prim, perfectionist who later assumes the mother’s role in the household, while Frances is the wisecracking tomboy.

When James is caught up in World War I, Materia secretly hopes he will be killed; that’s really the only way to save Kathleen from him, but he returns from the war unscathed.

At eighteen, Kathleen is sent to New York to study music. There she falls in love with her accompanist Rose, a doubly forbidden attraction, as it is not only a same sex one, but Rose is black. When an anonymous letter alerts James to the affair he rushes to New York to bring Kathleen home. He is so angry with Kathleen that he rapes her. She dies several months later giving birth to her incestuously begotten twins. The boy dies but the little girl, Lily, survives and it is publicly given out that Kathleen died of influenza. The family passes her off as Materia’s child, the baby sister of Mercedes, Lily, and the late Kathleen. Materia feels so much guilt for so many things that she takes her life, but this too is covered up with a lie about a sudden stroke seizing her while she was cleaning the oven.

As the 1920s come roaring in, James becomes a bootlegger and gives all his love to little Lily. Sixteen-year-old Frances idolizes Louise Brooks, bobs her hair in the same style, and gets a job doing stripteases in a speakeasy, while Mercedes, always the prim and proper one, becomes a schoolteacher, an old maid hoarding money in a cocoa tin, saving to send Lilly to Lourdes in the hope that a miracle will cure the polio-crippled child. And there’s a lot more melodrama, sins, and secrets ahead, so fasten your seatbelt, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Despite the darkness, and the sadness, that hangs over it all, this really is a well-written novel with a vivid and memorable cast of characters. You may or may not like them, but you probably won’t forget them.

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