The Next Chapter

How being a 'three-times lapsed Catholic' shaped Zsuzsi Gartner's latest novel The Beguiling

The Vancouver author and journalist spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a novel that challenges societal mores and conventions.
The Beguiling is a novel by Zsuzsi Gartner. (Hamish Hamilton, Imogen Broberg-Hull)

This segment originally aired on Nov. 14, 2020.

Zsuzsi Gartner is a writer and journalist who currently lives in Vancouver. Her short story collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was a finalist for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She was a panellist on Canada Reads 2004, when she defended Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler.

Her latest is The Beguiling, a novel about a young woman named Lucy who had dreamed of being a saint as a child. This dream may actually come true after the death of her cousin Zoltan, and Lucy becomes someone people come to in order to confess their sins. 

The Beguiling was on the 2020 Writers' Trust Fiction Prize shortlist. Gartner spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the novel The Beguiling

Germ of the idea

"I started working on this book about eight years ago. The germ of the idea has transmogrified since the beginning. It was really going to be more of Lucy's confessions. Lucy started out as a person who I pictured as an inveterate liar. She's constructing these elaborate lies and then through the chapters, you'd find out her truths. 

Lucy started out as a person who I pictured as an inveterate liar.

"Then somehow it turned into her being confessed to and her confessions coming out through that. There's lies here and there, but the whole idea of her being some kind of Pinocchio character disappeared.

"I wanted to model the book — and I think I have done so — using St. Augustine's confessions as a model." 

The Confessional

"I grew up a very fervent little Catholic girl. It was the pageantry and the idea of sainthood that attracted me at the time. I say I'm three-times lapsed. Although when I think of what was the third time, I don't recall. 

You cannot grow up a Catholic child and not feel the weight of this idea of sin and original sin.

"But there's always something that remains with you. The idea of sin and confession is heavily there. You cannot grow up a Catholic child and not feel the weight of this idea of sin and original sin. That vestige of guilt always remains. Guilt is a great fuel for storytelling."

About motherhood

"The motherhood element wasn't there initially — it sort of arose after a few years of working on it. Examining motherhood and the expectations of motherhood that came up when I read this wonderful, disturbing quote from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova: 'A Motherhood is such a bright torture. I was not worthy of it.' 

The motherhood element wasn't there initially in the novel — it sort of arose after a few years of working on it.

"Writing about motherhood was inspired partly by reading Elena Ferrante's book. How she wrote so unsentimentally and honestly about motherhood. It made me want to write as unflinchingly and savagely as I could about this element of 50 per cent of the population's lives — where motherhood is either thrust upon them or they decide if they want it or not. It is rarely written about in an unflinching and realistic manner."

Zsuzsi Gartner's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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