1740 The song must persist

Song of the Sparrow: A Memoir
by Tara MacLean

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (HarperAvenue), 2023
$25.99  /  9781443465120

Reviewed by Catherine Owen


Memoirs by artistic creators are rarely not rife with a range of forms of suffering. That art can offer transcendence is one of its core values, and in the life of PEI songwriter, Tara MacLean, music had to do quadruple duty, transforming experiences of incest, violent itinerancy caused, in part, by familial addictions, divorce and the death of a beloved sister into songs that enabled catharsis. Song of the Sparrow is an intensely emotional read, a tune of struggles and triumphs that begin in a peripatetic childhood, threaded through by religious and spiritual fervours, erratic parents and various kinds of abuse, both by MacLean’s grandfather and by a family friend, each of these men also abusing her younger sister, Shaye. Fortunately, the healthy form of “touching” was happening at the same time, as Tara discovered her voice and was encouraged to perform at the Island Talent Show, where many told her how much she had “touched them. Touched them. With my voice. I did that,” as she gratefully exclaims. MacLean, after learning about sexual boundaries in school, was able to stop her grandfather’s molestations. “The only way to kill a monster is with the truth,” she states, fiercely determined to protect and redefine her life and those of her loved ones.

Yet, when Tara is ten, her mother reveals that her father isn’t who she thinks he is and this revelation leads to further shifts as she eventually relocates to Victoria from Charlottetown, between difficult sojourns to London where her mother has moved, sinking alternately into alcoholism and acting roles. Amid these changes, the young girl also deals with the repercussions of her developing body, bisexual yearnings, her Nana’s brand of misogynistic-messaged deep care, and, almost tragically, a horrendous house fire set by an unknown assailant, a blaze that divides the family and changes the path of her existence. As she writes, “Everything is remembered as before or after the fire. That was ground zero, the demolition.” Now bouncing between her father’s home in Victoria where she finally starts to feel accepted and safe to the dysfunctional haze of London, where she takes rough jobs, does LSD, runs away, and later returns to Canada with her sister (she also has a younger brother and half-sister), Tara hasn’t yet located a place where music reconfigures pain. It takes a suicide attempt for her to write her first original song, coming out of the hospital to go “straight to [the] guitar in [her] room” where in “about a half hour, the song was out of [her].”

Tara MacLean. Photo by Jen Squires

This revelation was enlarged by spending time in jail for protesting the decimation of Clayoquot Sound, bonding with a quintet of powerful albums from Daniel Lanois to Sarah McLachlan, and playing the Salt Spring Island market where she meets artists and producers connected with the Nettwerk label. Unfortunately, these high points were marred for a time after Tara was raped under Rohypnol, leading her to rupture ties with beloveds and retreat into solitude. Eventually, she emerges and the real unfolding of her years as a recording and performing artist begins, from the naïve early days where she didn’t know what “bed tracks” were, through to shows with Tom Cochrane where she met her first husband Bill Bell, to accidentally pissing off the label in the States, which led to a cold shouldering where she went from “being their darling to being treated like they couldn’t care less,” to the ups and downs of her image being re-shaped, and then to playing Conan O’Brian and Japan.

The incidents and feelings in this memoir are many and immense, intertwining through all the highs and lows of a life on the road, within a relationship and then, finally, in becoming a mother right before her sister Shaye dies unexpectedly, after which her husband leaves her. At the same time, “the music business collapsed” from downloading, and money suddenly being unavailable for promotion. The combination of MacLean’s burgeoning domesticity with her second husband, Ted the yoga teacher, the addition of two more daughters and this desperate musical nexus, leads Tara to stop performing for many years, realizing “There was no money and [she] would be starting from scratch.”

Indeed, I had never heard of her, despite having gone to concerts by female artists she played with and idolized, such as Ani Difranco and Veda Hille (there were a few stylistic irks I had occasionally with the writing, one of which is the tendency to refer to the female artists she meets as “even more beautiful in person,” along with descriptors that became repetitively gushy at times) and thus, once I finished reading this memoir, I went to evil Spotify and listened to her albums. Alternately haunting and melancholic, these songs deserve discovery if you originally missed out. Although MacLean can get a tad guru-esque in passages that counsel the reader to “look for signs of life among the ruins” as “This is the resurrection,” her fierceness in writing about the challenges of motherhood and her endurance despite all turmoil is commendable to the core.

In the end, she realizes that the song must persist regardless, returning to PEI to stage a musical show called Atlantic Blue while soon too dealing with the deaths of her Nana and father figures. Song of the Sparrow reminds us of all the feathered tenacities, the multiple textures of one life, and how music is the truest way of loving with one’s “whole heart.”


Catherine Owen

Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by Caroll Simpson, Hilary Peach, John Armstrong, and Jason Schneider for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Editor and Publisher: 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.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


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