CLAIRE'S HEAD by Catherine Bush (McClelland & Stewart), 336 pages, $32.99 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Catherine Bush is a master of geography. She has a knack for highlighting the sensory minutiae of place so vividly that you feel like you're tailgating her characters through the spaces they inhabit.
While Bush stuck close to home with her brilliant Toronto-based debut, Minus Time, and sent her protagonist across the ocean to London with the follow-up, The Rules Of Engagement, her third effort has a much wider scope.
Claire's Head follows Claire, a migraine-suffering mapmaker, as she criss-crosses the globe on a quest to find her oldest sister. Like Claire, big sis Rachel's cursed with debilitating migraines - so crippling she left her daughter to be raised by their middle sister. When she vanishes without a word, Claire is terrified the pain has driven Rachel past her breaking point.
Bush brings up some characteristic themes: parental absence, the strengths and failings of science, bad communication in romantic entanglements. Save for Rachel's erstwhile lover Brad and a flamboyant Israeli therapeutic healer, the men in Claire's Head often seem oblivious to everything beyond their own noses.
The novel also raises some important ideas about biology, childhood and destiny. Claire and Rachel are on constant high alert for potential environmental threats - a whiff of hairspray or a taste of cheese could leave them bedridden for days in a vortex of pain.
Pain becomes its own geography for both women, but it's hard to translate such staggering pain into language. Words like searing and throbbing come up short, and though Bush's writing is elegant, the narrative needs more oomph.
Claire is annoyingly distant, while Rachel - who is most present through other people's memories of her - is more of a sketch than an active force. It's hard to invest in these characters, so the climax, like the pills and potions used by the migraine sufferers, fails to deliver.
Bush reads as part of the Harbourfront Reading Series Wednesday (September 22). See Readings,page 111.