Giant, Aga Maksimowska, Pedlar Press, trade paperback $20.
It’s difficult to read Aga Maksimowska’s Giant without thinking of the novel — about a gangly, precociously developed preteen raised by grandparents in Soviet-era eastern Europe and then transplanted to North York — as autobiography. One keeps looking back to the cover portrait of a self-described ugly girl, the “giant” of the title, and then to the author photo on the back: Is this creative, attractive and seemingly self-assured young woman what the odd child grew into?
Of course, I have no information about how autobiographical the story really is, apart from complementary tidbits released about Maksimowska’s own life — growing up in Poland, immigrating in 1988, and eventually studying at three universities and starting her own family in Toronto. And it is entirely unfair to read or review a fictional work as a factual memoir. All novelists draw on their life experiences, but all novelists also twist that experience, bend mundane reality and make up things to give birth to something new: their fictional world. In some ways, reading a novel as the story of the author’s life is like studying a child to learn what a parent looks like.
But any confusion of Giant’s Gosia with her creator is to the author’s credit. The character and those around her are drawn so intimately and indelibly. Even the first half of the novel when the 11-year-old girl lives in a dreary Polish apartment building, reading about her life as it’s related in her engaging first-person style, is never dreary. She and her younger sister yearn for their divorced parents, especially for their mother who has taken a supposedly temporary job in Canada. But their grandparents, the cranky but loving Babcia and the cynical Party member Dziadek, provide enough colour to keep our interest, along with resentful neighbours and playmates.
In fact, when the girls get a chance to join their mother in Toronto, the new world appears at first rather dull. They (and we) actually miss the cloying closeness of life in the old world now that they live in the more spacious but alienating environs of suburban North America. The difficult figures in their lives are now the mother’s domineering boyfriend, soon to become their stepfather, and fickle friends and schoolmates.
But Gosia adapts as we knew she would and eventually thrives. If I experienced any bumps along the way in this intensely written but highly readable novel, it was when suddenly in Gosia’s teenage-hood the story jumps ahead a few years to her leaving for university. I felt a slight cheat, not having been able go through every turn of those tumultuous years with that unusual young lady.
But in retrospect it was probably a good call by Maksimowska or her editors. We’re not allowed to tire of the central characters. And we move to the emotional climax when the family return to Poland upon the deaths of their beloved grandparents, where they see their native land — and the courses of their lives — with different eyes.
Aga Maksimowska’s debut novel is an eye-opener in other ways too, particularly in helping us recognize the emergence of a unique new voice.
Perhaps that’s the most noteworthy accomplishment of Giant — to keep us watching to see where Maksimowska can take us in the future.