Throwing light on truth, art and identity in Martha Schabas’ new book ‘My Face In the Light’

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“I used to be an actress,” says Justine Weiss in the latter stages of the second novel from Toronto author Martha Schabas. “I’m very good at saying things I don’t mean.”

Readers alert to the vicissitudes of unreliable narration don’t have to wait until the novel is more than two-thirds complete before being put on notice; Justine cops to being a liar in the book’s opening line. But there’s an irony here that has little to do with literary theory and everything to do with Justine herself. A consummate mimic and a veteran of the stage (her most recent role was the title character in Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé”), Justine is capable of accessing the inner workings of pretty much everybody except herself.

From one angle, “My Face in the Light” can be viewed as a kind of psychological thriller: a deep dive into the consciousness of a wounded, self-critical, occasionally self-flagellating first-person narrator. Schabas does not employ the conventional tactics of suspense to draw out the tension in her novel. Indeed, the narrative is virtually plotless and what incident there is proves less important than its effect on Justine’s fragile psyche.

The story opens in Toronto, where Justine is facing ennui in her marriage to lawyer Elias and estrangement from her artist mother, a cancer survivor named Rachel. On a recent trip to England, Justine had encountered a stranger on a train who offered her a cut-rate lease on a London flat in exchange for unspecified under-the-table work. Leaving Elias and Rachel behind in Toronto, Justine touches down in the U.K. to find that the job in question is keeping men company in a gentlemen’s club situated above a strip joint.

Justine’s journey across the pond is the subject of one of her most egregious lies: she tells her husband she is going London to do an internship with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In fact, she failed the audition miserably and has no prospects on the legitimate stage. When she visits her mother prior to departing, she lies to her as well, telling Rachel that Elias will be accompanying her on her trip. These untruths are in stark contrast to her response to one of the first men she encounters in the club, to whom she impulsively gives her real name.

Justine’s fractured interior is manifested by a scar on her forehead, which she acquired as a girl when she accidentally walked through a plate-glass wall. She tries to cover up the scar with elaborate bangs and makeup, but the effort at self-effacement is only intermittently successful; the drunkard in the club notices the scar at once, frightening Justine away.

If her scar serves as an objective correlative for Justine’s wounded psychology, her attempts to erase parts of herself find their externalization in a sketch she knocks from the hands of her upstairs roommate, Marie. The sketch — a self-portrait — falls into a puddle, where its charcoal lines run and bleed down the page. Justine mounts the damaged artwork in her flat, an ironic reminder that some acts of erasure are easier than others.

Schabas handles all of this with a light touch, teasing out the nuances of Justine’s psychology even as those nuances are withheld from the narrator’s own understanding. The author’s use of language is key here: Schabas repeatedly juxtaposes images of squalor and beauty — peeled paint on a building is “dirty and voluptuous” and a church’s lavish spire abuts the “grisly modernity” of its surroundings. These contrasts extend and deepen the portrait of Justine’s conflicted nature, the resolution of which may ultimately be inaccessible even to herself.

“I think mysterious people might find themselves more inscrutable than anyone,” Justine says late in the novel, putting the lie to the notion that it is possible to simply abandon quotidian life in an attempt to uncover one’s true self. After all, the self is the one thing we can’t run away from. The mystery of human consciousness follows us wherever we turn up.

Steven W. Beattie is a writer in Stratford, Ontario

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