Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: October 29, 2002 by: Pocket Books
Rating: 4/5 stars
CW: rape, incest, infant death, pedophilia, child abuse, misogyny, homophobia, racism, alcoholism
On Cape Breton Island in the early 1900's, the Piper family lives in a small home, while rumours, secrets, and lies plague their family. James Piper, the father of sisters Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances, and Lily, is abusive to both his daughters and his wife, Materia, who left her traditional Lebanese family to marry a white man. While the novel follows the Pipers through various stages of the 20th century, including World War One and the Jazz-era of New York City, more information is revealed about the family as the girls grow up amidst political and social change, along with dealing with an incredibly harmful father and a mother who ultimately tries to protect her daughters from his abuse.
I did not know how to feel about this book. As you can tell from the plethora of content warnings, this book gets dark very quickly. While some may argue that content warnings spoil the plot of books, I knew that it was incredibly important for folks to know going into this book all of the potentially triggering things that MacDonald discusses. So, if you need to stop reading the review here, I respect that. This book may not be for you, and that's fine. It is extremely difficult to get through. However, at the same time, I did not hate it. I had to learn to reconcile the disturbing content with the plot structure and overall themes of the book, which I actually think were conveyed quite well. Sometimes, books can leave you with a range of emotions, and I definitely felt that within this book.
I had to read this book for an English course I was a teaching assistant for, but the professor made us aware of the content warnings and didn't force students to read the book should they find the information triggering. I really was worried going into the book as these subjects tend to trigger my OCD a lot, however I was personally able to get through it and ended up appreciating the book for its commentary on social themes during early 1900's Canada. Again, this is not to say that anyone should just push through the book even if they're disturbed by it, this was just my personal experience. I had never read a book based in Cape Breton before, and I rarely read books set in the early 1900's pre and post war period, as I tend to find them a little heavy and boring. However, I think MacDonald did a great job at capturing the landscape of the Canadian Maritimes, mixed with the impact that the British Empire had on the culture in the area during the time period. She was also able to touch on topics of shell shock after the war, grieving lives lost during the war, and the political climate after the war. I found such topics to be very informative and they taught me more about Canadian history that I hadn't really known of before.
At the core of the novel is the Piper daughters, Kathleen being the eldest, and Lily being the youngest. All of the girls have extremely tough childhoods, with middle child Frances rebelling at an early age, and Kathleen moving to New York to attempt to escape such hardships. I think each girl got equal development and I could definitely care for each of their stories. Even though none of the girls are perfect, I think MacDonald provides an interesting commentary on trauma and how it affected each of the girls to make the choices that they did. Ultimately, this is a family caught in a cycle of abuse, and MacDonald did well to indicate how trauma can carry through various lines in a family tree.
Speaking of family trees, an important symbol in the book is the idea of family trees and ancestry, which I found to be an incredibly visceral but also symbolic way of learning more about the Piper family's lineage. Mercedes, the second eldest daughter, is obsessed with creating a family tree, though she is limited in her information because her family is so secretive. However, towards the end of the book, grave details about the family are revealed and the family tree ultimately becomes a very complicated way of showing the family's dark history. Still, I had never read a book where a family tree played such an important symbol, and I think it was used in an affective way.
This book left me confused as to whether or not I liked it, was disturbed by it, or whether or not I could really root for a lot of the characters. I think it was a little bit of everything. I definitely needed to read some lighter material after finishing this book, but I do think that MacDonald handled the subject matter in a way that was sensitive to the real issues that plagued women, queer women, and women of colour during this time period. Despite the book taking place during the early 1900's, MacDonald represents the marginalized folks of this time period by writing of forgotten histories that have long been swept under the rug. Yes, it was a complicated, difficult read. But I am glad to have read it, and I think it prompted a lot of discussion in my class, which was good.
Have you read Fall On Your Knees? Have you ever been confused by a book?
Emily @ Paperback Princess