I have been trying to put my thoughts together for a review of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s novel The Day the Falls Stood Still. I received this book from the publisher and read it last week and enjoyed it. By ‘enjoyed it’ I mean that I was absorbed in the reading of it, and I was engaged in the story and the characters and the writing.
But I’m having trouble finding the words to express my feeling for this book. It is a lovely book, it is well-written, and it taught me something about the history of Niagara Falls. Despite all these commendable qualities, it didn’t manage to astound me.
Before I try and explain why, let me give you the gist of the story. The novel takes place in Niagara, Ontario between 1915 and 1923 and mainly concerns Bess Heath and her fellow, Tom Cole. When Bess and Tom meet, Bess’ family is in the midst of a great crisis – her father has lost his job, her sister is unhappy and unwell, her mother is trying to keep the family together. The novel is, essentially, a love story. Behind that love story are some other themes – environmentalism, classism, the trauma of WWI, even a bit of spiritualism. There are many interesting side discussions running the length of the novel.
All of this, the larger story and the tangents, are handled well and the book is a smooth, pleasant read. In and of itself, it’s a fine piece of writing and a sweet story. Where I think it disappointed me is that it didn’t take any real risks. The book has its share of sorrows and although it deals with them respectfully, it doesn’t go quite far enough in their emotional exploration.
I’ll take an example that won’t ruin the story for anyone – Tom gets sent to fight in WWI and a part of the novel deals with his absence and fortunate return. He is a sensitive young man, with a great attachment and connection to the natural world. It follows that he would be affected by the trauma of fighting, and he is. So much so that when he comes back he is appropriately shell-shocked and Bess must find a way to help him heal. She does so, creatively, and the story continues.
But the highs and lows of that mini-story weren’t quite steep enough for me. I think Buchanan could have pushed her characters a little further, pushed the writing a little further and the reader would have felt more keenly the horror of World War I as well as the redemption Bess offered Tom. This pattern was repeated throughout the novel when each tragedy threatened. Even the book’s greatest sorrow is eventually smoothed away. I’m not arguing that this isn’t possible, but I felt it was done too easily, almost as if Buchanan or the story was unwilling to engage with the darker aspects of raw emotion.
But perhaps I’m arguing against a genre here. The Day the Falls Stood Still rests very comfortably in the tradition of mainstream contemporary fiction. The writing is even and careful, the story is interesting and takes the reader through a series of familiar emotions – disappointment, sorrow, elation, hope, more sorrow, more hope – which all lead the main character to a kind of mature and resilient strength by the end of the book.