Toronto Reads

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The Shape I Gave You

Margaret Baillie
Knopf Canada,
$29.95 hardcover

May 2006

Simple story of passion

Margaret Baillie may live in Toronto and at least half her latest novel, The Shape I Gave You, takes place here, but her story of obsessive love has a definite European feel to it.

The other half of the story takes place in Berlin, where pianist Ulrike Huguenot receives a long, strange letter from a Canadian sculptor who claims to have had a relationship with Ulrike’s father.

That’s about it for plot. Over a period of time Ulrike reads the letter recounting how Beatrice Mann met her father when she was a young girl and how she pursued the older and married man for the rest of his life, despite being thousands of miles apart most of the time. Passages of the letter are interspersed with what’s happening in Ulrike’s life as she’s reading about her father’s pseudo-affair. Beatrice’s first-person voice alternates with the authorial third-person perspective about Ulrike’s less passionate experience.

Part of what makes The Shape I Gave You feel continental is the very slenderness of the external narrative and the dwelling on introspective states. That and the poetic flourishes. Baillie was an accomplished poet before becoming a novelist. Unlike some poets-turned-prose writers, her sentences are not dense with imagery, choked with adjectives or too clever by half. In fact, her writing is admirably succinct. Despite the intensely emotional and intellectual subject matter, this is a fairly easy read—not just for the literati. But Baillie’s narrators do have those off-hand observations of seemingly irrelevant detail and the little making of odd connections that mark them as having their inner dialogue written by someone of a poetic mind.

Yet the simple story draws one in. One doesn’t always understand the characters. Why did Beatrice latch onto Ulrike’s father? Why did her own husband put up with it? Why did she want to tell the man’s daughter all about it, shortly after the death of her own daughter? And how does Ulrike really feel about it? We’re not even sure about what happened intimately between Beatrice and Ulrike’s father.

But I don’t think Baillie is much concerned with explanations. And in an odd way the reader comes not to care about that either. We come not to judge but to participate in an unusual experience to see where it takes us.

— Eric

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The Shape I Gave You
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