Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Incident Report (Martha Baillie)

The Incident Report was an impulse buy after seeing it mentioned in a copy of Bookmarks Magazine. What first intrigued me was that the story unfolds as a series of incident reports filed in a library. Miriam, one of the librarians employed by the Public Libraries of Toronto, keeps an observant eye on the different violations, threats, and other disruptive behavior that occur within their walls. She gives the offenders and the regulars made-up names (like Suitcase Man and Fainting Man) and details her encounters with them in clear, brief sentences. But the book does not limit itself to the incident report motif; what ultimately kept me reading was the unfolding mystery that accompanied Miriam's seemingly orderly life.

Miriam finds handwritten notes in various places of the library, all referring to Verdi's opera Rigoletto. In case you'd rather not click the link, the opera is, in a nutshell, about a court jester with a father's curse -- he accidentally has his own daughter murdered. Miriam, who names Rigoletto as her first opera, is not bothered by the notes in the beginning but as they grow in frequency and in zeal, she soon shares these with the authorities. The Rigoletto references stir her own memories. Interspersed throughout the incident reports are Miriam's recollections of her own father, done in a more plaintive voice than the detachment she employs when reporting the disturbances in the library. I think that Ms Baillie is most effective as an author here, when she manages to create strong images of Miriam's father without revealing too much at a time, and juxtaposing those with the heightened emotions in the mysterious Rigoletto letters. Their story is told with a gentle and heartbreaking sort of longing which I truly admired.

Along with this mystery is Miriam's budding romance with Janko Prijatelj, a Slovenian artist and cab driver who has a missing finger. Miriam does not believe in love anymore ['I was immune and that I could not fall in love, that I'd done so once before and did not wish to repeat the experience. If someone had asked, I would have said that I was not the sort of person who recovered(p77)']. Yet she lets Janko in, he 'with the quiet oval face and the eager eyes (p182)'. I'm a romantic at heart so I suppose this had a lot to do with my appreciation for that particular plot point but I'm not sure if everyone will enjoy it as much as I had. I thought that all her relationships (with Janko, her absent father, her colleagues in the library and their colorful patrons) give the reader a subtle yet probing understanding of Miriam as a woman: her fears and insecurities, her hidden strengths. Through Ms Baillie's nuanced writing style, I found myself immersed in this refreshing character study.

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