Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald is a larger than life story, a convoluted tale of family secrets and lies. At least three times in the novel the action occurs in clumps, and over the course of a few days or even a single night, there is more family melodrama than all of Shakespeare’s plays combined: infants die, cars crash, shots ring out, and one or more characters (and the family cat) pass away quietly, cozily asleep in a wing-back chair or with a head comfortably positioned in an oven. During one such chock-full episode, something horrific happens, cryptically described. After that I spent the next third of the book in dread, anxious about what awful thing might be revealed next.
What kept me coming back was the amazing story-telling skills of Ann-Marie MacDonald. This is a beautifully written book with long lyrical sentences, vivid scenic description and surprising metaphor, a treat to read. Yet I had to keep asking: what is the story here? Certainly MacDonald has something more in mind than a sensational soap opera to traumatize the reader. Or does she?
MacDonald moves from omniscient to third person limited point of view so seamlessly that I seldom noticed. In this way it gives the reader a universal overview, but it also achieves an intimacy that an omniscient view often lacks. But whose story is it? The younger daughter Frances is the catalyst for much of the action. She seems to be intent on deliberately re-living her eldest sister’s life, though she is only able to manage a rather twisted replica. Why she does this, and how at that point in her life Frances even had knowledge of certain elements of Kathleen’s past, remain unanswered questions in the book. Nonetheless this is not her story alone. Every family member plays an intricate role in this complex story.
And so I kept waiting for a thematic thread that might pull everything together. One thing I noticed: for the time and place (late 19th, early 20th century Nova Scotia) there are a surprising number of interracial relationships, resulting in biracial children. This adds a fascinating texture to the plot, but initially it didn’t seem to define the story.
Four hundred pages in, the penultimate section brings the stunning answers I was seeking, as well as revealing MacDonald’s masterful skill to mislead and shock the reader. This flashback to the past through newly discovered diary entries paints a picture of young women who learn to face the unnecessary shame of their racial identities, and to love their own true natures. It is a sweet, lovely interlude, once again disturbed by an incident of horrific violence.
The final section I think is meant to offer some peace and redemption at the conclusion, but the two younger sisters seem to have gotten little of that. Middle sister Mercedes in particular has been pegged as such a good, long-suffering, sturdy provider, but she’s been left out of the loop when confessions were made, mea culpa’s offered, and secrets revealed. Is it any wonder she grew into such a suspicious, manipulative shrew? Okay, that’s my only spoiler.
Fall On Your Knees (not sure what prompted the title) is a magnificent , beautifully written story, but it’s waaaaaaay dark! I notice most Amazon and Goodread reviewers give it five stars or they give it one. There’s no middle ground! I’d say it’s definitely worth the journey, but proceed at your own peril. It is not for the faint-hearted.
I most likely will be checking out Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Amazon page and probably pick up another of her books. But not right away. I need a break! Can anyone recommend something light and funny?