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The Nettle Spinner by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

The Nettle Spinner

by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

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143983,061 (3.8)4



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From the beauty of the writing, it's hard to believe this is Kuitenbrouwer's first novel.

This is a fascinating tale, which intertwines the fable of a woman pursued by a feudal lord, with that of a modern woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault and the resultant pregnancy. The fable is based on a Flemish and French fairy tale collected by Charles Deulin and which Andrew Lang included in The Red Fairy Book. In it the lord forces the woman who is the object of his obsession to spin the cloth to be used for her wedding shift and his shroud from nettles. As she makes his shroud, however, the lord falls ill and does not recover until she stops spinning. When later he becomes ill again, and so ill he wishes to die, he cannot do so until she finishes his shroud.

The protagonist of Kuitenbrouwer's novel, Alma, is a young woman at odds with modern life who heads out into the north to plant trees with a somewhat motley and rootless crew. There, she is raped, runs deep into the forest and discovers she is pregnant. She holes up in a cabin with a mysterious elderly leprechaun-like recluse, who may or may not be real. He claims, after all, to be a survivor of the Titanic.

Kuitenbrower captures the verisimilitude of camp life in the north perfectly, and it's not a pretty picture. My skin crawled and I wanted to take a bath after reading about the filth, the bugs, the sweat, the dirt, and the back-breaking, repetitive, mind-numbing toil. But her writing is so lovely, and so perfectly suited to the fable-like quality of the narrative, that I was glued to the page.

This is a dreamy, lyrical novel, which nonetheless manages to create a brooding, menacing atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to see what she'll do next. ( )
  Laurenbdavis | Sep 28, 2012 |
The Nettle Spinner by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the story of Alma, a treeplanter who has found refuge in a ghost town in northern Ontario with a man who claims he was a stowaway on the Titanic. Interwoven with this present tale are flashbacks to Alma’s last summer of treeplanting as well as a Flemish folktale about a nettle spinner.

My sister spent years treeplanting and B, my partner, planted for one summer, so I’m familiar—from a distance—with this world. However, Kuitenbrouwer’s descriptions of life in a treeplanting camp transported me there—these segments of the book were my favourite by far. Kuitenbrouwer draws the transplanting crew with a sure hand: her cast of quirky characters could easily have become caricatures but instead their eccentricities are what make them feel real. And Alma’s scathing critique of so-called forest management practices makes for compelling reading.

My favourite scene is Alma’s encounter with a bear—part rant about the craziness of what she’s doing, part comedy of errors, part philosophical musing about the nature of right and wrong, this is possibly the best woman-meets-beast scene I’ve ever read—complete with a Janis Joplin soundtrack no less.

However, my enjoyment of this segment of the book didn’t carry over to the rest of it. The nettle spinner’s tale is a grim story of a peasant girl who catches the fancy of the local landowner, a cruel man who is used to taking what he wants. The story in the present is disturbing and almost hallucinatory in parts—on more than one occasion I wondered if Alma was imagining what was going on. I was also dismayed by how the women in this book are portrayed as acquiescing/participating in the violence perpetrated against them. And after all the build-up, the end of the book feels anticlimactic: as Alma says herself, “the great anticlimax.”

The blurb on the front cover of The Nettle Spinner calls Kuitenbrouwer “a brawny and gifted writer” (this is according to Jonathan Bennett). I wouldn’t disagree. I just didn’t care for where this story went.

A slightly different version of this review can be found on my blog, she reads and reads. ( )
1 vote avisannschild | Oct 1, 2008 |
The life of a tree planter in northern Ontario gets complicated fast. Interesting read! ( )
  Scaryguy | Sep 5, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0864924224, Paperback)

In her early twenties, Alma met a tree-planter and fell in love — not with the man but with his strangely romantic work. Now, after several seasons of planting trees out west, the tough-minded hero of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer“s visceral first novel has come home to northern Ontario to help reforest the ravaged landscape with a gang of filthy ex-hippies and idealistic students. Baking by day in the hot sun and tormented by mosquitoes and blackflies, Alma and her fellow planters relieve their backbreaking toil at night with sex, dope, and alcohol. But her brief passionate affair with a charismatic newcomer named Willem raises the ire of Karl (whose amorous attentions she has deflected in the past), and he viciously rapes her. Pregnant and alone, Alma flees to an abandoned mining camp where she and Willem once made love. There, with the help of the camp’s single weird inhabitant, she constructs for herself and her unwanted baby an increasingly ominous new life. Weaving together Alma’s story with an ancient Flemish folktale about a peasant girl’s magical hold over a lustful count, Kuitenbrouwer links the power of narrative with the passion for self-realization. The Nettle Spinner is a gritty, sensuous debut that portrays sex with startling clarity and violence with peculiar tenderness.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:00 -0400)

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