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courtesy Fran Kimmel

Book review: The Shore Girl

Albertan gothic novel is interesting, but not perfect

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For her first novel, University of Calgary alumna Fran Kimmel delivers an experimental piece of fiction about the life of Rebee Shore. Rebee is a girl from a fragmented family. Her father’s identity is unknown, her mother’s whereabouts are usually a mystery and her interactions with others are hesitant and wary. From the outset, The Shore Girl doesn’t leave the best impression, but Kimmel’s experiences bring a refreshing authenticity to the novel, helping it stand out as a worthy piece of Canadian literature.

Each chapter of The Shore Girl is told from a different character’s perspective, offering insight into Rebee’s life. However, because the first chapter is told from the perspective of a five-year-old Rebee, the book starts in a way that is very alienating. Five-year-old Rebee uses poor grammar, like a toddler would, and other characters use their own colloquialisms. This is an interesting stylistic choice for Kimmel to include, but starting off with such a distant perspective might push some readers away.

I was more interested in the narrators themselves rather than what they had to say about their interactions with Rebee. The way each narrator is fascinated by the girl comes off as obsessive and creepy. While Kimmel allows her narrators their own backstories and motivations, making them more rounded characters, this format turns her novel into what feels like more of a short story collection. This structure creates a tie with another Canadian writer, Alice Munro, and her novel Lives of Girls and Women. Munro’s work was first published as a novel and later as a short story collection — The Shore Girl could also work well as either.

Kimmel’s Calgarian and Albertan roots are clearly seen in this novel. The locations and atmospheres ring true to rural Alberta, helping the novel remain genuine. However, the Shore family’s experiences seem too extreme in the beginning, making the book seem slightly amateurish. It’s as if there is more focus on making the reader’s sympathize with the characters rather than making Rebee’s family realistic. This could be a failing on my part, however, in having disbelief about a family being this fragmented.

Kimmel graduated with a Sociology degree and has worked as a youth counsellor, so it’s likely those experiences informed her writing. Despite this, Kimmel’s inexperience in writing fiction shows — her descriptions of Rebee end up putting the girl on a pedestal. Perhaps this is why the narrators seem more interesting to read about than the titular character.

Kimmel’s inexperience in fiction writing also shows in the structure of her novel. Though she puts effort into experimenting with narrative, the book ends with all of the conflicts wrapped up a little too nicely. Given the dysfunctionality that pervades almost every aspect of Rebee’s life, the ending should have had some unexplained mysteries to it. Kimmel seems to attempt this by keeping the narrative reliant on memory, making the narrators themselves unreliable. However, the ending still wraps up with no stray ends.

Chapter seven is the biggest culprit of gratuitous exposition, where almost every aspect of the Shore family’s background is presented to the reader on a silver platter. “Look how nicely structured I am,” the novel seems to proclaim. Maybe it’s due to the influence of postmodernism, but I would prefer there to be some unexplained, unattainable exposition in this novel.

Overall, The Shore Girl is a decent first novel with a strong background rooted in real life experiences. It’s unfortunate that Kimmel’s inexperience as a writer allows this book to lose its hold on the reader, but for a first attempt at a novel, it is still an interesting look at a kind of Albertan gothic literature.

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