Sitting Practice By Caroline Adderson

Buddhism and the art of bicycle maintenance
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I interviewed Caroline Adderson when she published her first book, A History of Forgetting. Here was a Canadian novelist with a prose style as elegant and controlled as a swallow dive. Her plot was daring, her ideas were brave. But an image of her wouldn't budge. Every time I picked up her debut novel, there she was, waving at me and running up and down with a supermarket trolley. With 10 seconds of her trolley dash to go, she'd scooped so much off the shelves that most of the items on top kept slithering out on to the shop floor. Everything in A History of Forgetting was of the highest quality - no microwave meals or packs of marshmallow mouthfuls - but the stuff just wouldn't stay put.

This time, Caroline Adderson is well and truly in charge of her basket. The prose is even better and the humour is full-grin instead of slight-smirk. There are times when she tries too hard - "...the rough brown Slinky of paring dropped, naked potato leaping from his hand like a squeezed bar of soap into the cold water" - he's just peeling a spud for God's sake. But there are many more times when she hits it just right - "Ross shifted and, under his weight, the vinyl seat hissed like the audience at a melodrama". The giant leap with this second novel is that, finally, the plot, the characters and her ideas do exactly what she tells them. And blimey are they ordered to do some difficult things. No one could ever accuse Adderson of timidity when it comes to subject. In A History of Forgetting her evocation of life with Alzheimer's is so acute that it hurts. In Sitting Practice, she confronts what it means to be disabled, and yet this is not a novel that's trapped, defined or even confined by its protagonist's inability to walk. Sitting Practice pulses with energy and activity, unlike another recent Canadian novel about a disabled woman, the impressive Critical Injuries by Joan Barfoot. Sitting Practice makes a greedy grab for life, while its introverted sister, Critical Injuries, sits still.

Ross Alexander runs Reel Food, a catering business for the film industry. He is newly married to the athletic Iliana. A car accident, for which Ross is responsible, leaves her paralysed from the waist down. The novel covers the next two years, as Ross asks himself endlessly "how do you have an argument with a person in a wheelchair?" and Iliana wonders what she has to do to make Ross treat her as he did before. Ross leaves Reel Food and moves with Iliana to the town of Duncan to embrace Buddhism and open Real Food, an organic, vegetarian café. The sitting practice of the title isn't just Iliana's in her wheelchair, but Ross's as he struggles with his new faith. Don't panic if pesticide-free novels make you want to be sick. Ross falls spectacularly off the meatless wagon before the novel is through and religion doesn't turn out to be much cop either.

Bonnie, Ross's clinging, demanding twin sister, moves to Duncan to join them, with her young son Bryce. A new sandwich is chalked up on the order board in her honour: "The Bonnie Alexander; no bread, no filling". Bonnie specialises in choosing gay boyfriends, so when they leave her, it isn't her fault. The lover she really wants is her own twin brother. When she helps Iliana choose a wedding dress, Bonnie somehow ends up in white, while the bride wears blue.

It could just be that Adderson has come up with the definitive test for the putative creative writing student. "Write an explicit, funny and touching passage in which a paralysed woman has a passionate affair with a spotty youth, while her husband wrestles with his Buddhist beliefs and falls off his bicycle". Adderson does it so well that few could match it for skill and wisdom. When I interviewed her, she told me that we must all put ourselves in other people's shoes or we're doomed. Put yourself in her elegant, snappy, beautifully crafted shoes and you'll feel all the smarter for it.

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