By Karen Smythe
Goose Lane Editions, 2017
This Side of Sad by Karen Smythe begins before the actual text begins with a swirling timeline illustrating the major events within the romantic life of Maslen, the story’s protagonist. This novel is divided into four parts: Begin, Beguiled, Beloved, and Bereft. The shared “be” prefix infers a theme of becoming. This theme is weaved throughout a story which examines the mysterious death of James, Maslen’s husband.
Maslen takes the reader upon a journey to understand what happened to James, what killed him? She does not, however, take an expected course of investigation such as gathering physical evidence, interviewing potential witnesses, and piecing the puzzle together. Instead, Maslen explores her three most serious romantic relationships: Josh, Ted, and James. This immediately piques the reader’s curiosity. What hints could the history of these relationships tell us about James’ death?
The beauty of this exploration lies in the non-linear, yet utterly connected, retelling of Maslen’s love affairs along with her heartbreaks. Maslen begins by describing the wedge between her and James right before his death. This is a stark contract from the rest of their love story which was filled with vivacious sex and adoration for each other. Maslen depicts how she and James fell in love, how much he loved her, and how he always strived to make her happy. They were the “ones” for each other, but Maslen admits she merely obliged his initial advances while she hoped Ted would come around. “I waited for Ted to come to his senses and back to me, to what I thought of as my real life, our life together.”
Ted. The one that wasn’t “the one.” The one that only did missionary with her, even though they were crazy in love during their initial courtship. Maslen remembers, “We planned out the next decade of our lives, the first year we were together.” And then there was Josh, “the one” that got away. Josh and “Mazzie” were best friends who made juvenile sex cracks with each other but were never officially in a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, the intimacy between Maslen and Josh is palpable. Their dialogues evoke feelings of youth, playfulness, and an intimate friendship, the kind of friendship you where can make hand job jokes to the opposite sex while having a deep connection.
Maslen’s tale flows from Ted to Josh to James to herself and back again like water. One moment Maslen is curious about how Josh looks in the present day to how he used to love how she smiled when he made a dirty joke to how she felt foolish making jokes in front of Ted to how her and James closed on their last home together on April Fool’s Day. Smythe’s stream of consciousness technique makes the reader reflect upon the seemingly random associations in their own life. The novel doesn’t stop there, the reader also learns about Maslen’s upbringing. Her transactional and somewhat distant relationship with her parents, and even her sister, provide a basis for her romantic choices and wishes.
Smythe’s narrations about love, loss, loneliness, and time and are vivid. She reflects upon her life events and upon herself in a way that is novel yet familiar to the reader.
Falling in love is like being hit by lightning, and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s an event, one that turns you into someone new. You fall, you break apart, and you’re reconstituted. When it happens to both of you at the same time, parts of each of you slide into the other and overlap, like circles in a Venn diagram. And if or when it ends, it becomes a remnant, this wrapped-up love, an entity with rings around it for each of its active life, the final circle a thick contour containing all of who you were when you were together. The rings are a map of where you started from, and where you ended up.
This is one of several elucidations Smythe provides for ideas we experience yet may not have the words. However, while the reader is well aware of Maslen’s family and romantic history and inner dialogues, she can be difficult to “know.” Her external dialogue is scant and leaves the reader questioning how to perceive her character. Maslen’s different familial and romantic relationships demonstrate how she adjusted for each. While this is often true for many, the “core” of Maslen becomes lost amidst these variations. The reader is aware of her thoughts and how she interprets conversations with others. But it is challenging to imagine the conversations themselves.
How does James die? The answer to this question is less important than the journey which brings us to the answer. It is a journey of how we are shaped, how we relate, how we move on, what we need, who we need it from, and where it all takes us.
Healing hurts. You want it to. Because you keep touching it, don’t you? The way you touch your tongue to a canker, to feel the sting. You probe it to summon the pain, to exacerbate it. If you can make it worse, perhaps you can make it better.-Nisha Mody