“Married Women Need Not Apply”: Carol Bruneau, A Circle on the Surface


Well, that superintendent had taken his time drafting his reply–though when she hadn’t heard before Labour Day she pretty much knew. Still, reading it was crushing. They had wanted high school experience, he wrote. An upstanding person with sound moral judgment and a background in chemistry. Married women need not apply.

I heard Carol Bruneau read from A Circle on the Surface at Word on the Street this year and I thought (rightly, as it turns out) that it sounded like a book I would enjoy, so I bought a copy on my way home. It has taken me longer than the novel deserves to read it–the academic term is well underway, for one thing, and I’ve been too tired to do much reading after work; also, as anyone following the news knows, these are trying times in ways that make it hard to concentrate. I took advantage of today’s warm sunshine, though, more than welcome after a week of rain and fog, to sit on the deck and finish it up.

I said I thought I would enjoy the novel, and I did–but in a way I also didn’t; I suppose that’s another reason it took me a while to read to the end. It’s not that it isn’t a good novel, because it is: taut, intimate, evocative of a particular time and place (war-time Nova Scotia, including Halifax and the fictional but plausible town of Barrein, both of which Bruneau draws with nice attention to historically vivid details). The prose is understated; the tone is emotionally reticent, which suits the  novel’s protagonists Enman and Una, whose marriage is faltering because neither of them is quite the person the other thinks, or wants, or needs.

It’s the mismatch between Enman and Una, and even more between Una and her circumstances–isolated in Barrein, bored, lonely, and frustrated without her job, with nothing but her unsatisfactory marriage to give purpose to her days–that made A Circle on the Surface difficult to read. Enman and Una’s relationship is (mostly) tense and unhappy, and as a result it’s a tense and rather melancholy novel. Una’s dissatisfaction is particularly clearly rendered, felt as much through how she sees and interacts with the landscape as through anything she says directly; even going for a swim in the ocean seems fraught:

The tide was in and, despite being late morning, the beach was deserted. Her loneliness only added to her day’s irritation. She let seafoam scrub her toes while lines from movies washed wantonly in and out of mind–Casablanca especially. . . .

As she ducked under a wave, a gull nearby picked at a fish. She had read, of course, how a bad seed got passed along in families, though certain traits, aberrations, might skip a generation–or not. Take Enman and his weakness for liquor, his fondness for Barrein, and his alcoholic father who, despite his wandering eye, had never strayed from this place. Did Barrein apply brakes to everyone’s ambitions? . . .

She stepped from the surf, moved onto dry sand. The sun razored down, the sea a dazzle so sharp it hurt to view it. Everything was lost to the glare, hidden, as mysterious somehow as her emptiness, the feeling of a void as deep as the seashore at night.

Though the depressed tedium of Una’s day is broken in an unexpected way, it leads to no epiphany or awakening for her. Her story is a sad one–of few options, poor choices, and stifled ambitions. Bruneau frames it with the point of view of an older and somewhat wiser Enman, still struggling to understand his wife’s experience but strangely, in his self-consciousness about that effort, a better husband to her now than he could be before.

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