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The Shape I Gave You by Martha Baillie

The Shape I Gave You (2006)

by Martha Baillie

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I think I would like to read more of Martha Baillie's books if they live up to this one. The Quill & Quire said her "literary style occasionally echoes both Anne Michaels and Elizabeth Smart." I would agree with that assessment; both of those writers haven't written profusely but each line they have written is crafted with care and attention and that is what I felt reading this book.

Beatrice Mann, a middle-aged Canadian sculptor, writes a long letter to Ulrike Huguenot, a young German pianist, after Beatrice's 18 year old daughter is killed while cycling on a Montreal street. Beatrice and Ulrike have met twice but not for years and Ulrike only met the daughter once. So why did Beatrice decide to write to Ulrike? Beatrice is grieving but she cannot talk to her partner, Isaac. Beatrice used to write to Ulrike's father, Gustave, who she met when she was seventeen and Gustave was just starting on his career as a university professor. Gustave died a few years previously and before he died he sent Beatrice all the letters she had sent him. In her daughter's backpack when she was killed was all the correspondence between Beatrice and Gustave. Beatrice did not know that her daughter had taken the letters but their presence in her backpack draws her to Gustave's daughter to explain her relationship. Ulrike knew that Beatrice wrote to her father because the letters used to arrive at their home in Berlin regularly. Ulrike assumed that Beatrice and Gustave were lovers but she learned from Beatrice's letter that their relationship was more complex. For Beatrice the letter also acts as a catharsis and helps her move forward. Ulrike is also affected by the letter and she decides to further her relationship with her boyfriend.

A poem at the beginning of the book seems to work well as an explanation for Beatrice's motivation:
We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
When you can't talk to someone close and the clouds and wind and animals aren't interested then maybe you have to give shape to someone else who will hear what you have to say. ( )
  gypsysmom | Feb 4, 2017 |
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Standing at the corner of Leopoldstrasse and Theodorstrasse, waiting for the traffic lights to change, Ulrike curled her toes to warm them inside her boots.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0676977480, Hardcover)

The night before she leaves to give a recital in another city, Ulrike Huguenot, a young pianist, arrives at her Berlin apartment planning to spend a relaxing evening there. Instead, she finds, stuffed in her mailbox, an unexpected and unwelcome letter. It is from Beatrice Mann, a Canadian sculptor, a friend of her father, Gustave, and also, Ulrike believes, his lover. What could this woman possibly have to say to her? And why now, seven years after her father’s death?

“I’m writing to you because my daughter has died,” begins Beatrice’s extraordinary letter of confession. Her only child, Ines, has been killed at the age of eighteen, and Beatrice has closed herself in her Toronto studio. Unable to speak openly with her grieving husband, Isaac, she turns to Ulrike, a young woman she barely knows. While she retells, and possibly reshapes, the past – her obsession with the exacting and complex Gustave, and her relationship with her elusive, now vanished, daughter – Isaac sets out on a journey of his own.

As Ulrike reads about Beatrice’s life and Gustave’s role in it, she reluctantly revisits the world of her own memories and starts to see her present in an altered light.

In The Shape I Gave You, acclaimed novelist and poet Martha Baillie explores the complex relationships between parents and children, men and women, to create a novel of spare elegance that gives piercing insight into the nature of confession and how we choose who to ask for absolution.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:47 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Pianist Ulrike Huguenot receives a letter from her father's lover, Beatrice Mann, because Beatrice can't connect with her husband after her daughter's death and she is trying to reach out to someone. Beatrice introduces Ulrike to facets of her father's life that she had not known and Ulrike begins to see her father in a different way.… (more)

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