Rudy Wiebe twice won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, first for The Temptations of Big Bear and then again for A Discovery of Strangers. In both novels Wiebe imagines historical events from perspectives not traditionally represented in historical discourse: the trial of Big Bear and the first Franklin expedition, respectively.
I’ve read A Discovery of Strangers three times now, and this last time is the first that I paid much attention. Something about Wiebe lulls me. I suspect the constantly shifting point of view and abrupt changes in chronological sequence are distracting, but his word choice is (oddly) poetic and so, for the first two reads, I lost a lot of the subtleties. This time around I’m reading with intent (take that Atwood), reading with the intent to write twenty odd pages about the book, and so reading with a close and careful eye. It has given me a sinus headache (actually I suspect the winter and germs are responsible for that).
There is much for the attentive eye to notice: the dominance of circles; the repeated use of both ‘discover’ and ‘strangely’ in reference to the ways characters speak; descriptions of the arctic ice as ‘eating’ or ‘consuming’; references to skin – the thickness, colour and texture of it. And so much to do with eating.
I noticed the eating before, but on this read I noticed it in new places. Sex is described as eating, the landscape is described as eating, the English explorers are (of course and always) described as eating, the animals eat, the children eat, the rocks and the forest and the water eats. And people eat one another.
The novel poses several questions directly: what are the explorers looking for? What do they hope to find? And. What are our responsibilities to one another? What does community require?
The answers might be found in the imagery, the symbols, the dialogic and polyphonic structure. Or perhaps there are no direct answers, rather an insistence that we readers ‘eat’ too: the novel, the narrative, and in eating incorporate the voices and this story into ourselves, and perhaps then find something approximating answers – or perhaps just satiation.