Girl Runner: I wanted to like it

Man & woman running in silhouette

There was a lot to recommend *Girl Runner* by the Canadian Carrie Snyder. A book about a trailblazing (sometimes literally) young woman who runs for Canada in the 1928 Olympics  and wins the gold. Themes that are appealing to this young-ish feminist and runner: woman makes her own decisions even if they are unpopular, woman defies supposed limitations imagined by men, woman runs because it’s the only way to feel calm and centred.

And yet. Elements of this book that didn’t need to be there, were, and so were distracting and frustrating. Agathena, our protagonist, (fictional, not the historically accurate Olympian) ought to be a lesbian. The novel flirts and skirts with this idea, but ultimately – and frustratingly and disappointingly – sees her “fall in love” with a man and the pleasure his body offers her. I actually put the book down when – in the space between one chapter ending and the next beginning – Agathena moved from loving her training partner to loving this parachuted in man (okay, sure, the novel doesn’t explicitly come out and say as much but every moment between them is pregnant with lust and love and there are several indirect conversations that make their love, “quivering” (a too often used word choice) beneath the surface apparent to all but the least attentive reader). Most frustrating because it not only because the narrative elements (foreshadowing and images and the whatnot) didn’t support it, but because it took what was, until that point, an utterly compelling plot unfolding around a woman’s desires, choices (and lack of) and ambitions and made it about how she does or doesn’t deserve this man. Baffling.

Then there was this sort of is-it-a-mystery-isnt-it element that was similarly confusing as to its purpose. Call it a classic case of the form being out of joint with the content. Agathena gets pregnant. Her mother, a ‘backwoods’ midwife/abortionist delivers the baby and, in secret, gives it to Agathena’s (barren) sister to raise. This plot line is *supposed* to be a mystery only revealed in the last climactic moments. But it’s not a mystery. This reader – again in the gap between one chapter ending and the next beginning – made the logical leap. When you end a chapter with the protagonist alone, trying to decide what to do with her baby, you ought to expect the reader will entertain – and project forward – both options. Totally willing (and able) to keep both potential plot lines in my head while I keep reading to determine what she might have done. So it was no surprise as the “foreshadowed” and dropped hints emerged suggesting that she’d had the baby. Not much detective work to connect it to the sister. For this reader the quasi-mystery just made me wonder why it was meant to be mysterious. What thematic benefit was gained in withholding this element? As far as I can tell its only purpose served to present the climax, which wasn’t climactic.

All this to say this novel had incredible potential. Creative exploration of women in sport, women’s historical development of control of their bodies [Agathena is something like 100 years old, so we really do get the broad swath of time], the role of friendship and maternity in shaping identity… And I’d still suggest reading it if you were doing your Can Lit comps and wanted something to do with sport and abortions. I guess.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Girl Runner: I wanted to like it

  1. Jane

    Well, I did like it and then I read your review and found myself embarrassed by my liking it because I found myself agreeing with you. I am glad that I read your review after; otherwise, I would have missed reading a book that I “thought” I enjoyed. I did find her escape from the nursing home too closely resembling the plot of The Hundred Year Old Man…Window. The novel from the point of view of an eldery protangonist trapped inside time and memory is quickly becoming a sterotype.

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