I can’t help thinking that “challenging” is an overused word in the book review shtick, but, Angie Abdou’s Between is a challenging book. It’s not challenging in a stylistic sense, like Joyce or Woolf — Abdou’s writing is laid-back and accessible. And Between is not a monumental modern day À la recherche du temps perdu — it’s a quick three hundred pages covering a year in the lives of an upper-middle class Canadian family and their Filipina nanny. Potentially pretty tame stuff. And while Between is perhaps challenging in that it acknowledges that parenting is often gruelling, that one must often “make the conscious choice to laugh instead of cry”, the deep challenge of the novel, I think, is a challenge to our fundamental assumptions about what is desirable in life.
“Between” is the story of Vero and Shane, 40-something parents of Eliot and Jamal and Ligaya, the nanny they bring to Canada to look after their children. The basic premise in some ways makes me roll my eyes like Debbie in Stoppard’s The Real Thing: “Infidelity among the architect class. Again.” Rich people have it so tough. As annoyingly self-absorbed and blinkered as Vero and Shane are, what becomes quickly clear is that they are a mirror held up to Canadian affluence. What starts out as the story of a couple suffering the burden of success, desperately trying to find themselves or lose themselves in drugs and sex, soon becomes a mesh of interwoven metaphors pointing to larger issues than “Where will Vero get her Percocet today?”
Early in the book, Shane tells Vero “We can have everything. Let’s take it.” This becomes their almost unwavering policy through the book, from bringing Ligaya to Canada, through their Saturnalian Jamaican holiday, to the final crisis in Ligaya’s basement bedroom. Near the middle of the book, Vero remembers (and quickly forgets) a statement her own mother once made:
My generation worked for a world in which women could do anything. Your generation misinterpreted that to mean that you must do everything.
Shortly after, Vero and Shane are at the Jamaican resort named “Hedonism”, making a brave effort to do, in fact, everything.
There is a sense of panic in “Between”. Vero spends her days frantically doing little or nothing. Her work is proofreading manuals for military equipment, manuals which will be translated into Arabic, rendering her work pointless. Her children seem to be little other than frustrating pieces of furniture until Ligaya takes over as parent. At that point the boys become cute things to look at before another round of Bikram Yoga. Vero is unable to see the obvious: she doesn’t want the life and the family she’s constantly chasing. Almost all that’s left for here is the meaningless chase.
Ligaya, on the other hand, can’t have the life she wants with her family in the Philippines. She is constantly and productively working to make life better for her employers and for their children in order to make life better for her own family. Neither woman is particularly happy, but Ligaya’s life has purpose beyond “I can have it, so I’ll take it. I can do it, so I must.”
And, Ligaya’s thought: “This world is not made for women. Not in the Philippines. Not here. Maybe not anywhere.” This fact is made most explicit (word chosen carefully) at the resort which is “everywhere and nowhere”, where the rules are clearly made by men.
Before the Jamaican holiday, Vero, talking like an English major, says “sex is a metaphor!” Although no one seems to realize it in the book, the holiday proves her absolutely right. In fact, almost everything in Between is a metaphor. The resort is “nowhere and everywhere”. “Bikram yoga: destroying the environment one tree pose at a time!” “SWEAT KILLS!” In a surreal scene, Vero demands of a young man “Protest the oil sands, the war in Iraq, the cuts to public transit, for God’s sakes.”
And the young man’s response sums up Vero and Shane’s life, Between and our world: “They’re all the same thing.”
In the end, Abdou offers a solution, a resolution to vast, tangled web of self-deception which is a big metaphor for our diseased, tangled, self-deceiving society: the outsider takes control. Remembering that Ligaya’s name means “Happiness” in Tagalog, the final two words of the novel provide yet another layer of metaphor, and a touch of hope: