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Bow takes on symbolic meaning in new novel

It is said that just before people die, their lives flash before their eyes as the mind runs at light speed through every memory.

It is said that just before people die, their lives flash before their eyes as the mind runs at light speed through every memory.

In the case of Rhegan Flett, the narrator in Calgary author Anne Sorbie’s debut novel, though, she is given the opportunity to not only see her memories, but to contemplate her life and her death and share the story of how she got there.

Memoir of a Good Death opens with a question: Have you ever wondered about the moment of your own death? It is a thought Rhegan states she had rarely considered before her death, but in hindsight, she realizes in the months before she dies, the death of her father foreshadowed her own.

It is an unusual approach that works surprisingly well in exploring the idea that people’s lives – in this case the Fletts – can be so linked to a place or a landscape that even their death is inextricably joined to the identity of a place, which in Memoir of a Good Death, is the Bow River.

But featuring the Bow River as one of the symbols that appear in her story was not an entirely conscious move on Sorbie’s part.

Born in Scotland, Sorbie moved to Calgary with her parents when she was 13 in 1973 and over those years this region, she said, the Bow River region, ‘infected’ her and, as a result, it is a part of who she is today.

“In one way, the Bow did invade the story and present itself to me. When I first started working on the book, one of the things I did come up with was that these two women would travel down the Bow to spread the ashes of their dead husband and father along the way,” Sorbie said, adding her characters are connected to running water.

“It became really important that way physically, and then symbolically it grew from that,” she said, adding she wanted to play with the weird weather that can occur in the Bow Valley-Calgary region.

The same could be said for the bear that appears. Like the Bow River, it is a totem that stems from a family myth which suggests Rhegan and her deceased father, Ed, are descendents of a Orkney Island woman who mates with a bear given to her by a Viking warrior.

The symbolism found within a Memoir of a Good Death is not so outrageous as to be believable, but serves to remind readers that landscape has a way of affecting us in unusual ways.

Sorbie’s story is also heavily influenced by western Alberta weather, which, as anyone who lives in this region knows, can be wild and wonderful or exceedingly difficult. The book is also about how weather and a profound connection to place can affect people.

“It does affect us as people living here and I hope some of that does translate into the book,” she said.

The story follows Rhegan and her mother, Sarah, as they attempt to maneuver through the six months following Ed’s death, culminating in a canoe trip on the Bow River to spread his ashes in different places. In different ways, each event builds on the elements – air, fire, earth and water – that create the core essence of the Rocky Mountain region and how it affects people.

“It was a great delight in doing that. It has such a resonance for me and many other individuals,” she said, reminded of the old saying about mountains bringing to peace to the people.

“And they really do. They get under our skin. They make us go out and do the most absurd things regardless of what the weather might be.”

Unlike many writers who are drawn to set their stories – for whatever reason – somewhere away from home, say New York, for example, Sorbie specifically set out to write about her home “as one of the most spectacular areas of the world,” but that only recently has become an acceptable place to set fiction.

“I wanted to get at in the book that there is so much more to this place. All of these things that attracted people to the Bow Valley 100 years ago, from my point of view, still exist today,” she said, adding it is a place of opportunity and discovery and a place to still be profoundly affected by the landscape.

“It is what you could call a book that is regional literature, but not just because it is about a particular place, but because of the way the place affects the characters. Place has an affect on them, the way they think and feel.”

Memoir of a Good Death by Anne Sorbie, published by Thistledown Press, retails for $19.95.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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