- Girl Unwrapped, a novel, and: Turning the Corner at Dusk
I recently spent a week with my three-year-old granddaughter. "Tell me about when I was a baby," she asked over and over. "Tell me about when my daddy was a baby. Tell me stories about Grandpa Ray." She couldn't get enough of hearing the stories, and I never got tired of telling them. I was reminded of the power and the necessity of storytelling to help us make sense of our lives, and I was reminded once again when I read two recent works by Canadian Jewish authors Gabriella Goliger, from Ottawa, and Jacquie Buncel, from Toronto.
Girl Unwrapped is a classic coming-of-age novel, set primarily in 1950s-60s Montreal, tracing the early life of Toni Goldblatt. It is also a classic coming-out novel, as Toni's quest for normalcy founders on waves of her emerging lesbian desire. These two narrative strands take on extra heft due to her family's losses in the Holocaust. Goliger deftly inserts her novel into the growing body of literature by and about lesbian daughters of survivors of the Shoah.
Toni Goldblatt's identity is pre-formed for her, and she need only step into it gracefully [End Page 106] to please her parents. Named Antonia for her maternal grandmother who was taken by the Nazis, Toni struggles constantly against her mother, Lisa, who articulates an archetypal Jewish immigrant woman's desire for social acceptance. Lisa's longing for the lost bourgeois European Jewish world she grew up in can only be appeased by escaping their working-class milieu and achieving a successful North American life. Toni's resistance to Lisa's attempts goads her mother to angry outbursts, which seemingly come out of the blue, but are in fact intimately related to her mother's unprocessed trauma, as we would now describe it.
Toni's father, Julius, whose quiet, bookish demeanor is a counterweight to his wife's histrionic approach to daily life, has his own unprocessed trauma to contend with. An uncautious word in his presence most usually provokes not anger, but absence, related to the death of his sister, also taken by the Nazis.
And then there are the moments when he departs from his body. She looks up from her breakfast toast to find a mannequin in a suit across the table. Frozen limbs. Eyes of stone ... Her mother sips coffee as if nothing happened. None of them speak about these little absences. Do they really occur ... ? She is no longer frightened, as she used to be, just a bit sickened.(p. 72)
Toni's implicit and explicit role is to compensate for the losses of the Shoah by being a model daughter and future producer of grandchildren, but she has no understanding of how to please her parents without doing violence to her own sense of self. She struggles to find her way past the forces of immigrant shame, working-class shame, and the shame of simultaneously desiring the normalcy of femininity and abhorring its restrictions.
In an early scene, Toni's parents have finally decided to risk moving into a more expensive home in a "better" neighbourhood, much to her horror.
After the van leaves, Julius, Lisa and Toni stand at the bus stop with suitcases of newspaper-wrapped fragile or precious items Lisa didn't trust to the movers. The other passengers on the bus stare as they heave their bags inside, stumble forward, try not to bump any elbows, and wrestle the suitcases into the narrow aisles between the seats. One man smirks a little, as if he knows all about people like them and is not impressed.(p. 64)
Part of her mother's job is to help induct Toni into the world of 1950s femininity. Lisa does her best, but Toni can only be helplessly horrified by her emerging female body and the futures it appears to hold.
Her body betrays her in other ways too: feet that...