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About this book
After retiring from the heady world of academia, Sidonie von Täler has returned to the small Okanagan Valley town she escaped in her youth for the lights of the big city. The family orchard has since gone to seed, and ever decades later Sidonie still finds herself living in the shadow of her deceased older sister Alice.
As she gets down to work sifting through the detritus of her family’s legacy, Sidonie is haunted by memories of trauma and triumph in equal measure, and must reconcile past and present while reconnecting with the family members she has left.
Karen Hofmann’s debut novel blends a poetic sensibility with issues of land stewardship, social stratification and colonialism, painting the geological and historical landscape of the Okanagan in vivid and varied colours.
Excerpt from After Alice:
The 5:40 from Calgary, descending to the runway a kilometre to the south, rattles her roof and screams, all throat and flash, over the little frozen lake. Explosions of scarlet and green light track down the lake, pulse through the ice. The leafless aspens flare silver, copper, and are reabsorbed into darkness. The jet’s scream drops an octave, glissando. A spectacle of dragons, a kind of Valkyrie ride.
It’s her signal to close her laptop, abandon her work for the day. She stretches and blinks, tumbles from the tight interlocking puzzle of her mental work, of her reading and writing, into the jet’s destruction of silence, into the late afternoon of her empty house, as some component might peel from a shuttle and spin out into the void.
She had not thought, signing the papers for the house purchase, about the runway. Had not thought—entranced by the house, which in August had been full of light and space; entranced by the green and breeziness of the valley, a long slip of light, air, shade, and Montreal sultry and crowded; entranced by the real estate agent’s phrases: deer, ducks, lake path—she had not thought. She had seen only the lake, sparkling; the bobbing waterfowl.
She had forgotten how, even as a child, she had thought this area a bleak pinch of the landscape, a dark and dismal passage. The hills in this stretch of the valley low, blocky, not pleasing. A sort of rocky knob, just to the south and west of the lake, scattered now with dead and dying pines, blocking the light, the sun setting behind it by early afternoon. The least desirable land in the whole of the valley.
Reserve land, of course: what was given back to the original inhabitants as least valuable. Rocky, boggy land; the little lake, shallow and muddy, an afterthought in a valley famous for its lakes. Given back in treaties, this unprepossessing twist of the valley. A shameful illiberality. And now she has bought a house here, a bargain because on leased land.
Five Questions with Karen Hofmann:
NWP: In a few words, please describe the story of After Alice.
KH: After Alice is a story in two time frames of a woman who returns to her roots in the Okanagan Valley after many years in Montreal. She realizes that, running away as a young woman, she has some issues, memories, unfinished business. She thinks she has come back to retire, but instead she learns what she’s made of.
NWP: The backstory of the book revolves around the rising and falling fortunes of a family orchard in British Columbia's Okanagan valley. Did you have to do a lot of research into growing apples in preparation for After Alice?
KH: Growing up in orcharding country, I know the landscape. I had to do some historical research, though. My mom grew up in the valley in the 40s and 50s, and has always told me stories about what life was like in the orcharding communities in those decades. And my grandmother knew everyone in my community, when I was a child – all their business and kinship diagrams. She had lots of stories, too.
NWP: Some of the familial conflict in the story results from Sidonie's moving away from rural B.C. to Montreal for school, and sort of becoming a new person while she's there. Do you think that the rural/city divide is still as present these days, in the wake of social media and the Internet supposedly keeping everyone closer together at all times?
KH: It’s true that the Internet and social media can keep us in touch with the world, wherever we live. But rural life – or small town life; hardly anyone really lives rurally these days, according to the census – is still categorized by tighter social networks, and looser social strictures, possibly. And people who truly do live off the grid have different relationships to the production of food and goods, and the landscape, and the body, I think than urbanites. I wanted to show that in Sidonie’s family, when they take on the orchard life.
NWP: Some of our readers have noticed strains of Greek mythology woven throughout the story, in character names and places especially. Do you feel that the old myths still have relevance these days?
KH: Mythologies of all cultures provide us with symbols that help us understand, or at least impose patterns on, our lives and what happens to us. I see that my own children and my students are still very interested in myth. With the characters of Cashiel and Fearon, I’ve tried to include links to mythologies that are not part of the Western Classical tradition, as well.
NWP: Now that After Alice is almost out into the world, what are you working on at the moment?
KH: I’m about halfway through a new novel about a rural BC family in the 1970s, and am thinking I might have a collection of short fiction soon (also largely set in the South BC Interior).
“After Alice is a poignant exploration of the mysterious underworld of memory and the capricious expansion and contraction of time. Karen Hofmann has a compelling curiosity about people—their secrets, their sorrows, their strength, and their compromised ideas of love. She has penned a rich novel with big heart.”
"For the beauty of its narrative descriptions, but also for many other reasons, After Alice deserves a place among the best of new Canadian literary fiction." full review
"I welcome Hofmann’s refreshing voice with this wonderful book, one of the most interesting and exciting that I’ve encountered in ages." full review
"After Alice has the makings of a CanLit classic, with complex characters, heavy themes done with a light touch, and expert pacing. Did I mention that this is Karen Hofmann’s first novel?" full review
"This novel accomplishes so much ... After Alice firmly places [Hofmann] as an exciting new voice on the CanLit scene."
"After Alice is a terrific novel. Definitely consider it for your summer reading." full review