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Raymond and Hannah
by Stephen Marche
Doubleday Canada
224 pages, $25.00

reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted March 11, 2005

In Raymond and Hannah, 28-year-old Toronto writer Stephen Marche has written an almost audacious first novel. It approaches audacity thanks to its unique format—the novel is told in short fragments with droll comments printed in the page margins—but the story carried by this unusual framework ultimately falters in the disappointingly ambiguous ending.

At its heart, Raymond and Hannah is a prototypical love story: girl and boy meet at party, fall for each other, enjoy passionate week of sex and mutual discovery, and then are forced apart by circumstances, in this case, Hannah’s long-planned trip to Jerusalem. Here is a sample of Marche’s straitjacket-tight dialogue that helps explain Hannah’s journey, taken from a page-long section with the marginal comment, “Conversation in a bare room”:

“And how long are you staying?” he asks.
“Nine months,” Hannah replies.
“Nine months.”
“There’s also the Institute. I‘m going to learn Torah at an Orthodox egalitarian institute. The program’s nine months long.” She drinks her coffee.
“I have no idea what any of those words mean, except for ‘nine’ and ‘months.’”

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Hannah is on a voyage of self-discovery, trying to learn what being Jewish means to her. Raymond is also on a journey, though his is less obvious and less successfully resolved in the story. He is a doctoral student in English Literature, writing a thesis on the early 17th century scholar Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, something Raymond often dismisses as being boring and unimportant, but with which he is clearly obsessed.

Marche has said that he “wanted to write a novel without any of the bad bits, without any of the seams between the good bits that usually take up so much time in a novel.” His format accomplishes this somewhat, but that does not necessarily mean the novel succeeds as a whole. The strategy does not always make this narrative seamless; sometimes, it leaves chasms instead, gulfs that the reader must find some way to cross. This is particularly common in the long middle portion of the novel when Raymond is in Toronto and Hannah is in Jerusalem. They are only communicating by email, understandable considering the cost of long-distance calling, but the frequency of their emailing is too sporadic, and Raymond’s emails, especially, are surprisingly terse considering the passionate connection they made in the week before Hannah left. He is an English scholar, after all, which means he likes words and has way too much time on his hands, so one would expect him to send more than a two-sentence email every few days.

In the early pages of the novel, however, the format is thrilling and original. Marche moves between Raymond and Hannah’s points-of-views effortlessly, sometimes settling between the two in order to make a more poetic or philosophical statement. And the margin notes, which act as titles for the short sections they describe, inventively move between humour—“Conversation over 23) Chinese broccoli and 83) beef in black bean sauce”, profundity—“Raymond smells spring”, and simple banality—“Planning”.

It is mainly the ending of the novel which is disappointing. Without revealing specifics (which were given away on the review copy, but fortunately have been excised from the dust jacket of the version on store shelves now), an event occurs that complicates their long-distance romance, and the lovers are left at a crossroads at the end of Hannah’s stint in Jerusalem. Marche chooses to end the book with a two-and-a-half page epilogue—long by his standards—that foregoes the convention of the comments in the margins. Unfortunately, he also chooses to avoid clarity and closure. It is an ending typical of contemporary short stories where the point seems to be more about ambiguity than resolution, but most novel readers will be left feeling decidedly disappointed by its lack of resolution.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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