By Magie Dominic
Wilfred Laurier University Press
150 pages, $22.49
Reviewed by Marjorie Simmins
The first thing you need to know about Magie Dominic’s memoir, Street Angel, is that it is a poetic and circular windstorm, both humorous and disturbing. The second thing you need to know is that the tale is steeped in Newfoundland language and sensibility. Third, Newfoundland has been called “the other Ireland.” If you know these things, all else becomes clear.
The title is a part of an old Irish expression, “street angel, house devil.” This describes a person who is charming in public and abusive in private. At the heart of this life story is Dominic’s mentally ill mother, civil on the street, but violent and volatile at home. The reader will hear much of the mother’s “affliction,” which manifests as terrifying nighttime hallucinations, and in futile, repetitive measures to ward off the evil. Dominic, whose father was a Lebanese Catholic, and mother a Presbyterian Scot (“a mixed home” it was damningly called), was schooled as a Roman Catholic. The nuns, too, are street angels of a sort, gentle while abroad in the community but punitive, even sadistic in the classroom.
Dominic includes a glossary of Newfoundland terms for those unfamiliar with them. The book’s style is pure Irish-origins Newfoundland: energetic and tragi-comic, with an unusually dexterous use of language and dialogue. Donna Morrissey’s fiction came to mind as I read Dominic’s work.
Dominic also uses the literary technique, parataxis. Paratactic writing is used to convey a rapid sequence of thoughts in poetry and prose. Phrases and clauses are coordinated without conjunctions. This is the cadence of conversation, and our thoughts. Dominic writes as Julius Caesar spoke (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”), as Dickens wrote, and as Toni Morrison writes. The style is immediate and emotive. It also makes for a fasten-your-seat-belt read. Eleven-year-old Dominic, who begins the narration, is all eyes, ears and ragged nerves–as children from abusive homes often are. Dominic sustains the young voice believably, making good use of repetitive inner dialogue. The voice of the older Dominic comes and goes unobtrusively.
For a memoir, the scope is wider than usual, ranging from Dominic’s birth year of 1944, to the present. This is no “chapter of a life,” as memoir is commonly described. Dominic’s two-part structure is also unusual, using first a short-term and then a long-term lens. The 10 chapters in part one relive 10 days in Dominic’s young life, but she also explores earlier memories. While the foreshadowing seems to be steering the reader to something wretched, the “event” is in fact revelatory. Dominic experiences a home with peace and quiet–where there’s always “a cup of hot tea and something homemade at the end of the day.”
The twelve chapters of part two are a bricolage of personal memories, Newfoundland history, cultural and media touch-points, along with the events and highlights of seven decades. Dominic matures, leaves home, lives in Pittsburgh, New York and Toronto. She has a child. She becomes a peace activist, a writer and artist of note. Throughout all, she remains a staunch Newfoundlander, even including the island in her acknowledgements, calling it “rugged, majestic, fearless, and exquisitely beautiful … my home.” It is, she says, a strength she carries with her wherever she goes. Her memoir is a song of love to that same island.
Marjorie Simmins is a Vancouver-raised author and teacher of memoir writing, now based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her memoir, Coastal Lives, was published by Pottersfield Press.