The Last Echo

Description

157 pages
$19.95
ISBN 0-920316-94-8

Publisher

Year

1985

Contributor

Reviewed by Janet MacArthur

Janet MacArthur was a freelance writer in Calgary.

Review

The Last Echo is the second novel in the proposed “Livelong Quartet,” Byrna Barclay’s fictional recapitulation of the history of the people of Livelong, Saskatchewan. Annika, the narrator, is our contemporary. She transmitted the oral histories given to her by Old Woman, the Cree whose people’s struggles after the Riel uprising constituted the story of Summer of the Hungry Pup. In that novel, Old Woman appeared on Annika’s doorstep just after Annika’s grandmother and Old Woman’s friend, Johanna, had died. After Old Woman finished her story, Annika realized that the story of Johanna of Hannas, Sweden, had to be told too. That story is The Last Echo.

Annika’s narratorial presence is not as evident in this novel as it was in Summer of the Hungry Pup; in fact, Annika’s intrusions often startle us, retrieving us from the folktale world of the Scanians of Southern Sweden. Annika’s familiar Canadian pragmatism serves to remind us of the contrast between Johanna’s culture and our own. The book is written in an approximation of the Scanian dialect, which has the effect of recreating in the characters of Annika’s grandparents’ generation a mythic world view based on Norse legend.

Each episode in the book is self-contained, each a legend or a tale in itself, and the focal consciousness often shifts — from Per Lundahl, Johanna’s father, to Hanna Larsdotter, her mother, to Johanna, to her lover, Arvid, and to Astrid Almkvist, Johanna’s rival. Annika stands back and refrains from imposing a controlling point of view on a kind of tale to which it is unsuited. That kind of story, we presume, will come later and will be Annika’s.

The Last Echo is an archetypal story of courtship and romance. The novel begins with Per Lundahl the woodcarver, an artist, a dreamer, and a drinker. While his cross-grained wife works out a scheme to marry off their four daughters, he carves a picture of two lovers into the lid of a hazelwood music box. This becomes an emblem for what transpires between Johanna and Arvid. Arvid, a northlander of Gothic stature, is one of the four sons of the dissolute horsetrader Bjornnson, with whom hard-bargaining Hanna is anxious to begin negotiating. The bargain they strike initiates the events of one heady Baltic summer, the height of which is a Midsummer Eve with all its romantic transformations. From the beginning, however, Johanna and Arvid’s romance is ill-omened, presided over by a laughing devil, by Per Lundahl’s fall, and by Bjornnson’s violence. Since he made a pact with a troll-like old man, Arvid’s life has been informed by trouble and has been mysteriously entangled with the fate of his forest horse, given him by the odd old man. From Midsummer’s Eve onward, Astrid Almkvist, whose personal suffering because of illegitimacy gets translated into bitterness and frigidity, begins to exert her influence over Arvid. The forces of infertility win out and, like Odin, Arvid makes a foolish choice.

The Last Echo culminates with emigration, making this novel, on one level, the story of the choices between the old world and the new, and hence, like Old Woman’s chronicle, one of the first Canadian stories. Byrna Barclay’s mythic presentation of that story ranks with the best Canadian novels of 1985, and this reviewer looks forward to the third installment in the quartet.

Citation

Barclay, Byrna, “The Last Echo,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/35824.