Aimee Wall’s debut novel recalls a 1960s underground movement in a story told through precise, exuberant language

Between 1969 and 1973, a group of Chicago women banded together to offer low-cost, safe access to abortion at a time when the procedure was still illegal in the U.S. Though they initially began as a service to connect pregnant women with physicians willing to perform abortions, when they discovered that one person had faked his medical credentials to earn some fast money, the women decided that they could also undertake the procedures themselves. In 1972, seven of the women were arrested and charged with abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision that prohibiting women’s access to abortion was unconstitutional; the charges against the women were dropped and the group eventually broke apart. The underground abortion providers were known colloquially as the Jane Collective.

Newfoundland-born, Montreal-based author Aimee Wall uses the history of the Jane Collective as background for her debut novel. The protagonist, Marthe, is a thirty-ish woman who works as a barista in a Montreal café. She has recently been abandoned by her boyfriend Karl, with whom she got pregnant and had an abortion. On a whim, she attends an information session for people who want to become doulas, not because of any innate interest in the subject, but because she had seen online articles about working “on the other side” as an abortion doula and thought there might be potential for her to find a kindred soul. At the meeting she encounters Ruth, a woman in her fifties travelling under the assumed name Jane, and together the two head to Marthe’s home province, Newfoundland, where Ruth intends to meet up with a group of women to form a 21st century version of the Jane Collective.

Two women – one older, the other younger – jumping in a car and embarking on a feminist road trip heavily recalls the 1991 movie Thelma and Louise; Wall dutifully name-checks the film in the most clichéd and obvious moment of what is otherwise the antithesis of a clichéd and obvious book. And while the abortion storyline is fast-paced and enthralling, what really propels the novel in all its facets is Wall’s impressive facility with language.

It’s almost axiomatic that Newfoundlanders are great storytellers, and much of this comes from the regional colour in their lexicon. In We, Jane (which has just been longlisted for the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize), Wall adheres closely to Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that “idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.” So, for instance, we are given this description during a nighttime ferry crossing from the mainland on Marthe’s journey home with Ruth:

Three youngish guys, around Marthe’s age, sat down at the table next to her. Ball caps and work boots; they were almost definitely driving home from Alberta. They were in good spirits, loud and carrying on with each other, and when one of them looked over and caught Marthe obviously listening, grinning to herself, he said whadayat over there drinking alone, come join us sure, we don’t bite.

The masculine swagger of “come join us sure” is delightful, but it’s the insouciant and insistent ”whadayat” that really sells the sentence. Or this passage, from Marthe’s first meeting with Trish, the older woman who will become her mentor in the practices and pitfalls of terminating a pregnancy:

She said we came by earlier but you weren’t home, there was a woman. Therese, Trish said. “Trease.” Alliterative, Jane said.

So, who is she, Jane said.

Trish squinted. She lives over the road, she said.

Jane smiled, let it go.

This is Marthe, Jane, gesturing.

Trish, just glancing. She said go on in and have a cup of tea, I’ll be in now the once.

There is a danger that this kind of thing might come off sounding twee or precious or as though it’s trying too hard to reach for a sort of linguistic exoticism. What saves it in Wall’s deft hands is her light touch, her almost preternatural understanding of just how far to push her characters’ local dialect. (“I’ll be in now the once” is both precise and vivid without calling undue attention to itself.) But more than this, Wall’s facility with painting in impressionistic strokes (“Jane, gesturing”; “Trish, just glancing”) renders the prose sinewy and immersive. It’s this careful attention to language that drives the book forward and lends Wall’s writing the breath of originality.

This is apparent from the very first lines of the novel, related in brief, expressionistic sentences. Wall begins in medias res, with Ruth (whom Marthe still knows as Jane) and her younger companion speeding east in a car, headed for the coast “with a big, vague plan” while “drinking gas station coffee, eating pistachio nuts,” and “talking grandiose.” “We, Jane, they thought. We, Jane, they started a sentence. We, Jane, they spoke manifesto. They, Jane, were still aspiring to the name, one that slips and slides, one from which, the idea was, they would do the work.” At this point, the reader still has no idea why Jane – in either its singular or plural iteration – is significant, nor what “the work” might entail. But the rhythm and force with which Wall’s language unfolds practically insists that the reader press on to discover the answers to these mysteries. As an opening, it’s a bravura performance.

The language of the novel extends its reach into the area of character development, which is equally strong and well modulated: “Marthe had generally fallen in love with hot-tempered, attention-seeking musicians, or more aloof, artistic men who did things with their hands and often drove a truck, had a dog, or only used a flip phone.“ There is an understanding of the exact detail to deploy in order to draw a picture in a reader’s mind that will appear simultaneously pristine and unique. Even a moment that could come off as overly didactic, such as Marthe’s discovery that her feminist companion is an aficionado of big, canonical classics by dead white male authors, is mitigated by Wall’s delicate touch:

Jane’s taste was somehow freeing. Jane didn’t have much patience for the fragment, the autofictional, the contemporary confessional essay. She didn’t have much patience for the novel interrupted by theory or some meta reflection. She wanted, unabashedly, her art to be beautiful; she wanted fire and transcendence. Marthe, on the other hand, had been raised on a steady stream of postmodern thought, surrounded by people who rolled their eyes at the canon, which was merited, mostly, but had also led to a certain amount of overcorrecting on Marthe’s part that meant she’d been, naively, shocked to discover how much she loved Flaubert, or War and Peace.

This passage tilts in the direction of a generational divide that is easily recognizable, but adds an additional layer to Marthe’s character. It is immediately followed by her marvelling at how young the Automatistes were when they began painting and issued their notorious Refus global, the manifesto that “basically, like, heralded the Quiet Revolution.” This is writing that sings, and We, Jane, brief though it is, is the literary equivalent of a grand and captivating aria.

Aimee Wall’s debut novel recalls a 1960s underground movement in a story told through precise, exuberant language
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