Friday, February 3, 2012

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

This is, hands down, the best book I have read for this project so far. Well, my favourite anyway, because can there really be an objective best book?

As a teenager and in my early twenties I worked my fair share of customer service, although probably not nearly as much as some of my peers. Retail has always been a particular hatred of mine, although food service is perhaps not much better. Hell is other people, as Sartre did so wisely note. But my most hated feature of those jobs was also kind of my favourite - the ridiculous customers and their stories.

At one convenience store job we kept a notebook under the counter, and we would write the funny or strange things that happened. Humour makes most things bearable. The Incident Report starts out much like that notebook. The protagonist works in a library, and the format of the novel is a series of incident reports - stark, emotionless, detailed tellings of things that happen. For the first little while it is flat out hilarious, in a distressingly sad way; in the face of the weird forms of humanity that flock to free public spaces, it is hard to know whether to laugh or shake one's head. We don't know what our protagonist, 35-year-old Miriam, does. She just tells us what happened.

I would have imagined a book like this to be uninteresting, but the lack of emotion does not stop the writing from being poetic and clever, and it challenges the reader to imagine desires and feelings for Miriam, to learn who she is by the way she describes things, and what she does. Baillie tricks us into thinking we are simply reading a list of things that happened, and that we are not invested - and then pulls the rug right out from under us in big, disarming moments of pure emotion. It is tense the whole way through; I had a very strong impression of Miriam doing her best to hold back the ever-present chaos of her life and the life of the library.

This is a story about stories, but for being set in a library it has little to do with books. There are many great allusions throughout, notably to Hansel and Gretel (which I almost missed because I'm not great at allusions). There are seemingly unrelated bits and pieces from the childhoods of Miriam's coworkers. Very few of the reports take more than a page.

The novel is set at the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library, where I have not been (Danforth/Coxwell what what!) but now kind of want to visit. Toronto plays a very small part in the story, as most of the action takes place in the library. It still retains a very local flavour, however.

This is a beautifully written, smartly crafted and thoroughly engaging book. I loved it so much, and cried unabashedly on the streetcar (you'll know which part). I can't recommend it highly enough, and I will most definitely be reading more of Baillie's work in the future.

Five out of five CN Towers

1 comment:

  1. I've had this on my shelf for a couple of years and I finally picked it up today.