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Book Review: <i>The Shape I Gave You</i>

Toronto writer Martha Baillie's new novel, The Shape I Gave You, is delicious.

I've been an impatient reader lately, reading a few pages or chapters then abandoning books - whether the characters don't grip me or the circumstances are too dire, bleak, offensive or boring, I just can't make myself wait for the payoff.

There's no waiting with Baillie. The Shape I Gave You satisfies like a fine meal - a new flavour on every page, each accenting the one before. She writes in elegant language and her deep, layered characters unfold cleanly and naturally.

It is difficult to sum up what happens in Baillie's novel, the characters form and reform as their voices and memories compete with the perception of others in the story.

Her book is highly informed by an artistic sense - most of the characters are artists of one stripe or another, and this gives them a way of seeing and sensing and creating which weaves into Baillie's story of identity and loss.

The novel is the story of Beatrice, a sculptor in Toronto who writes a confessional letter to Ulrike, a musician living in Berlin. Beatrice was once the lover of Ulrike's father, Gustave, and corresponded with him for several years. The sudden death of her daughter stuns Beatrice, and when she finds her and Gustave's letters in her daughters backpack, she can only move through her grief and guilt by relating her story to Ulrike.

Though Beatrice is the dominant voice in the story, followed closely by Ulrike's immediate response to the letter and hints of her life in Berlin, the story is also peopled with those dear to them both - Isaac, Beatrice's photographer husband, Gustave, who is stern and unpredictable in Ulrike's memory and intense and magnetic in Beatrice's, Ulrike's boyfriend Max, and of course Beatrice's daughter Ines, whose ghost haunts Beatrice's letter.

The Shape I Gave You is rich and engaging and a true pleasure to read. Baillie grasps and portrays complex, realistic relationships and histories that evolve without a wasted word or overplayed emotion.

It's a relief to be reminded that a book needn't be sensational or violent or hyper-sexed or offensive to be fresh and new and offer something lasting to the reader.

You can read about Baillie's TINARS event at the Gladstone - which didn't nearly do her justice.


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