Jane Woods, author of The Walking Tanteek.

A painful search for love, life after death and a loving divine presence

By  Mary Corkery, Catholic Register Special
  • May 29, 2014

If bitterness, pain and the F-word are exactly what you do not want to read, then don’t read this book. But if you have ever questioned God or redemption, ever felt unsure of exactly what you believe, then you might take the challenge of riding with Maggie Prentice. She’s the bitter, beyond middle-aged, alcoholic, anti-heroine narrator in The Walking Tanteek. She’s also a compelling, not easily likable character who escapes anguish in all the wrong places.

As you begin this book you will likely be intrigued enough by the opening scenes to wonder where it’s all leading. You might even be tempted to Google “Tanteek.” Don’t. Let Maggie draw you in with her savage wit as she lurches from fear and rebellion toward despair.

Maggie’s rants and paranoia don’t come from nowhere. She’s got a family, including a twin brother who was once a priest and now leads a cult-like group of drug addicts and other lost souls known as “The Untouchables.”

“The Father hates the unrepentant human race! We are nothing but grasshoppers in His eyes,” claims Gerard.

Gerard’s grim faith and that of her dysfunctional family have a grip on Maggie that she just can’t shake. Fleeing home for university in Montreal (backdrop of Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan and the war in Vietnam), she lands awkwardly among Marxists who stake all hope for the future on the human brain, matter, thinking. She falls in unrequited love with her only real friend, Liam. Back in Toronto, Maggie finds work doing voice- overs for TV commercials while she drowns the voices in her head with Jack Daniels and fends off the Tanteek.

Written in first person, present tense throughout, Maggie’s life is a wild trip from whisky to an episode of cocaine, from emotional paralysis to a glimpse of love and loss. Finally, a marriage bursts her heart open. But then the relationship begins sliding out from under her.

Maggie lashes sharp words at her brother, her pious mother, her grandmother, her live-in mother-in-law who vacuums the driveway and finally her husband. Words are her weapons of choice, though on a couple of occasions fists do fly.

As her struggle gains momentum, Maggie lets fly extreme hyperbole, cutting, sardonic descriptions of people, adjectives relentlessly tripping over each other. For example: “… like a slap-happy morning-show weather anchor, or a drama with fake murder at the heart, the Mystery acted out for us by clowns paid handsomely to float face down in turquoise pools or sprawl behind steering wheels caked with vermillion gore.”

You may become, as I was, desperate to escape the tirade. By now you are riding in Maggie Prentice’s mind. You are aghast.

Rare moments of light hold her, until something goes wrong and she unravels more fully than before. You may want to throttle Maggie for her cowering slide into self-destruction.

I sighed with relief when Maggie sporadically names — clearly, straight on — what she yearns for. It turns out she wants love, life after death and a divine presence that is not vicious. There are just enough redemptive moments that you hang in with her, hoping against hope.

The author scatters seed that will flourish in the end.

Inspired in part by the epic struggle of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this is a brave novel with a message. Jane Woods is a skilled artist. Her unique characters starkly drawn and thorny. Drama might have been served by making Maggie gorgeous-destructive, or letting her succumb with flourish to the suicide that tempts her. But that is not Maggie Prentice, a character you won’t quickly forget.

As you finish the tale, you may wonder whether Maggie’s questions are fundamentally human. She confronts us with the observation that faith is neither easy nor reserved for the righteous. Maggie’s final words should echo inside you. Maybe you will be left with surprising hope.

(Corkery is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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