1607 A year in a life

Confessions with Keith: Extracts from the Journals of Vita Glass
by Pauline Holdstock

Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2022
$22.95 / 9781771964975

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

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Vita Glass, the character at the centre of Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel, lives in an extreme amount of chaos. It’s no wonder as she has four children, a dog, a cat, many gerbils, and a husband grappling with some issues of his own. She’s also trying to work as an editor and do her own writing. It’s kind of exhausting just keeping up with all the activity.

Keith is Vita’s hairdresser, and while he’s in the title, he’s not really a significant player in the family drama apart from offering a service away from the domestic mayhem, which is often quite funny even when the problems are real. And readers familiar with Victoria (where I live) will be able to spot the various settings of the novel and the slight loopiness that Victoria and its environs may be known for. The local colour is amusing, and as the temporal setting in the 1990s, the overwhelming effect of the online world is largely absent.

The novel opens on Mother’s Day. Vita gets a series of mostly terrible presents from her children, and then decides to celebrate the day by painting the stairs. Things do not go well, no surprise, and the day ends with a plumbing disaster: “the shower drain gurgled twice with convincing special effects then gulped and belched a random sample from the septic tank.” This image sets the tone for much of the ensuing turmoil. Things going wrong on many levels is the focus of the novel, but Vita’s ability to plough through the problems and often see the humour even when exhausted is refreshing.

Pauline Holdstock

Holdstock does a good job of delineating the characters of Vita’s children, who range in age from fifteen to four. Kate, the eldest, is a familiar blend of teenage girl sarcasm and love. Vita notes, “Her behaviour is always dramatic but, I fear, involves very little acting.” Fourteen-year-old Felix is struggling at school and wants to take off, to travel and to attend protests of which Vancouver Island has an ample supply. Miles at eight is marked by his propensity to vomiting, and Hettie, at four is sweet little girl who just wants things to settle down. Overall they are splendid kids. Jack, the husband, is less clear, perhaps because the main problem between the spouses is a lack of communication. So Vita is mystified by whatever is going on with Jack and is deeply wounded by his actions. He spends much time kayaking alone and then decides he needs space from the marriage. And while they squabble about money, this family is solidly middle class, so financial issues are not fatal.

Vita’s friends round out the cast, along with her mother and sister Ruby who come to visit from England. The journal entries are not daily as Vita is incredibly busy, and they vary in length depending on what’s going on. Overall the time frame is a little over a year. It may seem longer as so much happens in the Glass family.

Given that Holdstock herself lives in Victoria, grew up in England, and is a writer, it’s impossible not to think of some of the novel as being autobiographical. But as that’s all I know about her, it doesn’t matter. Vita certainly describes author readings and open mic poetry nights with an air of authenticity and hilarity that anyone who has attended one is likely to recognize.

Confessions with Keith deals with real life issues in a frenetic and funny manner, even to its grammar as Vita tends to use lots of sentence fragments, perhaps a marker of her overloaded life. And she is an incredibly social and sensual being. One planning blunder means that Vita and Jack have a party spread over two days as people have been invited for both Friday and Saturday. References to pop culture help to further situate the novel in a particular time that is unlikely to be familiar to younger readers (PalmPilots). Occasionally the humour feels forced, but largely the time spent with Vita is entertaining. And it’s no accident that “vita” means life.

Pauline Holdstock, July 2019

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Candace Fertile

Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room MagazineEditor’s note: Candace Fertile has recently reviewed books by Ava Bellows, Beth KopeGeoff InverarityAngélique LalondeJane Munro, and Arleen Paré for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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