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The Diamond House

de Dianne Warren

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I was pleased to discover that Dianne Warren, whose novel Cool Water won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, had a new novel out. Unfortunately, I didn’t find The Diamond House as engaging as her first novel.

The book focuses on Estella, the youngest daughter of Oliver and Beatrice Diamond. When she is five years old, Estella finds some letters and learns that her father, a successful brick-factory owner, was once briefly married to Salina, an independent and unconventional woman who aspired to be a ceramics artist. Raised by her mother Beatrice, a very traditional woman, Estella often wishes she had been raised by Salina. She too longs to be independent, but her plans are always derailed by the needs of her family and, though she does have a career as a teacher, she always reverts to the role of a dutiful daughter.

The novel begins in 1902 when Estella and Oliver first meet and ends in the present after “the Raptors had won the championship.” It begins in the Ottawa Valley but soon moves to Regina and northern Saskatchewan.

The contrast between Salina and Beatrice is striking. Salina has an “independent manner” and does not want a “predictable life.” She wonders how a young woman like herself can “become what she dreams of being.” She runs away from home and sets off for Europe. Beatrice, on the other hand, is anything but daring. When she and Oliver move to western Canada, she is “unsettled by this wilderness, and she felt a longing for quiet, conventional Bryne Corners, Ontario, and the house she had grown up in.” Whereas Salina was “a free spirit and a suffragist,” Beatrice “was determined to adapt as well as any woman to the role of wife and mother” and vows to offer Oliver “stability and a well-kept home.”

How could Oliver be attracted to two such very different women? Would Oliver and Salina have been happy together when Salina was “not likely a woman who would have adapted well to being a homemaker”? Certainly, Estella suspects that were Salina her mother, she would have encouraged her independent spirit.

Certainly, Estella is not encouraged to pursue a career other than marriage. Oliver proves to be a traditional man who expects his sons to work in the family business but makes no room for his daughter; “he’d not taken his daughter seriously, and that consequence was her career as a mathematics teacher – a perfectly good career, but not a dream career.” He never really considers her dreams, though he did once write to Salina that he has separated from his family because they have no dreams “and without dreams there is no joy.” Because she is female and because she is single, Estella is expected to put her family’s needs first, so at different times, she ends up a caregiver to a brother, her mother, and her father. Advancing into an administrative role at school is not possible “because her teaching record had too many interruptions when she’d taken leaves to care for her brother, and her mother and . . . ” Eventually, Estella takes steps to assert herself in the family business but there are unforeseen consequences and in the end she asks “Had it been worth it?”

This book reminded me of another I recently read: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Just as Cyril makes the decisions about the house he and Elna will have, Oliver does not ask Beatrice what she would like in a house: “He seemed to believe he knew what a married woman would want.” Estella and Maeve are in similar positions; they are educated but the possibility of advanced education is never considered by their fathers.
Though Estella does not live a stellar life that would befit her name, she is the star of the book. She emerges as a fully developed character. At times I found myself cheering for her when she did something daring and at other times, I could have cried in frustration as she coasted through life. Perhaps because I’m older, I really liked the older Estella. Her questioning the meaning of her life and her legacy is something with which I can identify.

The novel does not cover new ground. Many other books have showcased the limited opportunities for women because of societal expectations. The Diamond House begins well but the pace really slows down (like Estella’s life perhaps). Momentum picks up towards the end, but the middle is a slog. A bit of judicious revision/editing would have this book shining more like the diamond in its title.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Jul 5, 2020 |
I loved Dianne Warren’s poignant first novel, Cool Water, which focused on an interconnected cast of characters, each with his own particular joys and private sorrows, living in a small prairie town. It won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2010 and was certainly deserving. Warren’s sophomore novel, Liberty Street, was a more focused work, following a single, oddball character through several years of life. I wasn’t crazy about that book, but I like her new one, The Diamond House, even less. It, too, focuses on a female character, Estella Diamond, born 1924, but covers a longer period: eighty-five-plus years.

Since The Diamond House is a short novel, the reader gets only the highlights—if you can call them that—of a very ordinary life that revolves almost entirely around the main character’s family of origin. As a child, Estella is ambitious, telling her father she’d one day like to take charge of his successful brick-making factory, but her four older brothers will later band together to deprive of her of that opportunity. As a precocious five-year-old, she’s driven by curiosity to pry the lid off a homely, heavy tea pot—kept as a memento of a mysterious long-dead aunt—only to discover that it contains a trove of letters between her father, Oliver, and his lively and unconventional first wife, Salina, who died only a few months into the marriage.

Beatrice, Oliver’s second wife and his children’s mother, is a dull, domestic replacement, and Estella finds herself wishing she’d had Salina for a mother. Under Beatrice’s influence, Oliver and his offspring are shadows of what they might have been. Estella’s development is particularly limited. She assumes (as so many women of her generation did) the family care-taking role—first, nursing her soldier brother Jack when he returns to Canada after World War II, and, later, attending to her aging parents. She also takes care of a young man who is injured by a reckless driver. He becomes a lifelong friend. Academically talented, Estella gains employment as a high school math teacher, but family demands prevent her from accomplishing anything for herself. She’s unable to pursue a university degree as planned or advance professionally within the educational system. Her once open-minded father won’t even consider having her work as an accountant in the factory. Before the end of the novel, however, she’ll perform several acts of generosity that will make the lives of others better.

While Warren provides a convincing sketch of Estella as a girl and a sensitive portrait of her as an old woman, the middle section of the novel which focuses on Estella’s productive years does not make for compelling reading. Estella tries to shine in middle age: she leaves teaching, briefly gains a boyfriend, flies along the highway in a sporty white Ford Mustang, and wears a daring, Mondrian-inspired two-piece swimsuit. Inevitably, even in these small acts, she’s thwarted. She can’t escape the role she’s been cast in. To impress a girl, her nephew takes Estella’s sports car out for a spin, leaving it wrapped around a tree. Her boyfriend turns out to be an opportunist, interested only in her sizeable inheritance. As she herself observes, all along she was destined to become the Old Maid of the children’s card game. As for the rest of the Diamond clan, not one of them really comes to life on the page. The reader really has no one to root for.

In killing off Oliver’s first wife, the feisty Salina, the author pretty much guarantees the sinking of her story. The narrative with its somewhat anemic characters plods listlessly and superficially along, offering one lacklustre event after another—from the annual extended-family holiday at a northern lake to Oliver and Beatrice’s wedding anniversary, their funerals, and the eventual closure of the brick factory. What Warren’s goal was with this novel is not clear to me: To document the missed opportunities and wasted potential of the women of an earlier generation? To show that our real families are the ones we form out of friends and not the ones we’re born into? Maybe. Warren’s writing is competent, her story, such as it is, is steadily and methodically built brick by brick by brick. Solid enough, yes, but a bit tedious, somewhat cliché, and ultimately not very satisfying. ( )
  fountainoverflows | Jun 22, 2020 |
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