A difficult and brilliant novel of daring distortions, Daphne Marlatt's Taken is one of a select few true modernist masterpieces.
Like all great modernist works, Taken's given resides in its Big-Picture conclusion, in its concluding strokes. From its evocative prologue (subtly invoking Robert Graves's White Goddess) to its epilogue's sublime recognition of what can only be described as incandescent resignation, this complex and demanding novel's structural framework hinges upon the achingly accurate intermeshings of an indelibly drawn tri-generational family of characters traversing a panoply of psychic and physical landscapes. Taken collectively, the layers of still shots ("snaps," in Marlatt's term), scenes, and sequences constitute a tour de force narratif centred in a spiralling maze of seamlessly executed temporal shifts.
"You return to your own layers of family never and yes, ever outgrown. The snapshots we take and are taken by," muses the never-named primary "personage" (or, more accurately, dominant voice) among Taken's complex and occasionally — though deliberately — confusing cast of characters and episodic multi-layeredness.
"Names shape destinies," avers the primary narrator (there are several supporting voices), identified as a lower-case "i."
. . . So much I don't know, all that preceded me. Who she was. Who he was. The tentative deciphering of what gets passed along in body tissue, without words. Not so much their history even, but the ambience of their lives, what they took for granted, the smell, the feel of their time my own beginning intercepted.
"She" was "mother" (Esme); "he" was "father" (Charles); and, "they" were the children of Viktor and Aylene, the narrator's parents and ultimately, as "i" spells out, ghosts whose personal history intersected with 1942's fall of Singapore during the Second World War. (This is one of the defining events of the novel. Don't ask!)
Almost a half-century later, the narrator relates "another kind of story, a story of listening way back in the body. And is this memory? Or fiction? How put together a narrative of brightly coloured bits turned, turning as if to focus and the falling patterns then. Beautiful forms. Illusions of continuity, of completion . . ."
Recently separated from Lori, her lesbian lover, currently residing solo on an island off Canada's left coast during the Gulf War, "i" wakes one morning coming to terms with the slowly dawning realisation — slowly dawning because, halfway through the book, she's still trying to get Lori back — that she's been left to her own devices.
And what devices they are! Narrative-within-narrative, perfectly paced shifts in perspective and point of view, vividly captured scenes, exquisite cameos and vignettes, all memorably fixed in Marlatt's dignified attention to both language and dialogue underscored by the cadences of lives both in process and development.
Shot through with an elegiac modern strain characterised by a reconciliation of dread and acceptance, Taken pivots upon the premise that, in our post-human (a.k.a. hyper-materialist) world, a single valid question urgently requires resolution: "How does one manage, after all, to remain a person?"
Meticulous and measured, "i" rises from the pages of her life (and its interconnections) writ large, finesse and style complementing controlled chaotic raids on the emotionally indecipherable. These indescribables are, paradoxically, lucidly defined: Despite the fact "i" wants nothing more than the return of Lori, "i" at once accepts and celebrates that loss. Marlatt's prose similarly does ruthless justice to a series of interspersed first-person testimonials from a prisoner of war who is never named, providing a parallel for the narrator "i."
Steaming out in a sort of post-sunset — the glare of fire, the pall of smoke — sailing with no lights, you waited, holding your breath, hushing the children, a boatload of women and children smoke-smudged and disarrayed . . . Only hours later, alone, letting the current drift you toward the beach . . . you hear a noise, feel grit in your face, and the clipped impossible syllables of Japanese, at least you think that's what it is, a gun at your back . . . You know that this, this is reality and you've been taken.
An original and lushly resonant voice inhabiting the contemporary samescape of fiction, Marlatt delivers on the promise of limitless potential heralded by her first novel (1988's Ana Historic), consistently displaying the talents of an agile linguistic maestro conducting the performance of her writerly life.