There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.

The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie

When I was at university, I worked for a while in a department store’s take-away food section. That meant serving the public, and the thing about the public is that while most people are perfectly fine, it’s not most people you remember.

The ones you remember are people like the minor celebrity who came indoors on a cloudy day wearing dark glasses, which made you stare at them until you realised they were a celebrity ostentatiously looking inconspicuous so that people would stare at them; or the guy who held up two bottles of water from the chiller cabinet, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder; or the countless, countless people who asked me if they could mix the pick’n’mix. Yes, I would say, you may pick it and you may mix it.

I still to this day don’t eat pick’n’mix.

I like people. The public though? Those people are weird.

Martha Baillie’s fine novel The Incident Report  draws on her experience working in the Toronto Public Library. I hope nobody ever held two books up to her asking which one was longer.

Incident Report

The book’s written in the form of library incident reports. These are forms that have to be filled in when an incident occurs in a public library, “including a Suspect Identification Chart.” There’s a template form right at the start of the book. The librarian filling them in is Miriam Gordon, thirty five years old, single, her official job title recently changed from “Clerical” to Public Service Assistant”.

The first few reports seem straightforward enough, descriptions of odd patrons at the library, but the librarian writing them includes details that almost certainly aren’t required. Here’s an early example:

Incident Report 7

At 2:20 this afternoon, the unusually pale female patron who suggested, a few days ago, that I deserved to be placed in a cage, walked briskly into the library. She was clothed in blue jogging shorts and a white tennis skirt, which she wore as if it were a Roman toga, the waistband slung confidently over her right shoulder. The crisp white pleats released themselves in a fan across her chest. We did not speak. She found what she wanted without my assistance. She left. Almost skipping with delight. Sunlight fell through the windows in broad swaths. A man looked up from his book and smiled.

The patron had previously been abusive, so writing up her return seems arguably fair enough (though she doesn’t do anything this time). The details though about sunlight, about a man smiling? There’s no library-approved reason for those.

Soon the reports become stranger yet, filled with personal details, with Miriam’s history, reports going far beyond the intended purpose of the forms. These are the incident reports of her life. Here’s another early example:

Incident Report 10

When I was eighteen, someone broke my heart. Within the period of a week, without warning, the love in my breast became opaque and hardened into a substance resembling glass. A few well-placed blows, and my heart shattered. One of these blows was administered over the telephone. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I slammed down the receiver. I was still living with my parents. I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks; it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happened to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

As the book continues, part-stories emerge. A library patron may be stalking Miriam, leaving excerpts of the score to Rigoletto and notes suggesting the writer sees himself as Miriam’s protector. She begins a romance outside the library, reflects on her past and above all on her relationship with her father. Her life starts to unpack in the form of scattered reports, scattered incidents.

It sounds gimmicky, and I suppose it is, but Baillie pulls it off and the book’s a joy to read so it’s good gimmicky.

As the novel progresses it becomes both a mystery and a love story, or perhaps mysteries because many of the patrons featured in the reports are regulars and come with their own stories, their own pasts. These mysteries aren’t solvable. A librarian may see that a patron carries signs of old traumas, mental scars, but a librarian isn’t a private detective and the mystery walks out the door with the patron and their chosen books.

The greater mystery is Miriam’s relationship with her father, a man she blames for her own timidity and failings, such as they are (and her failings seem small ones). The tragedy of his life emerges from the incident reports too, but as with the library patrons we only have a partial view of him, a child’s view here, and we can never know what he carried with him, what happened when Miriam wasn’t there to see its effects.

Against all this is the love story, with Janko, a Slovenian painter and refugee who now drives a cab. A new love is a new future, a looking outwards instead of in. Miriam then is poised between the trap of her history and the possibility of her life yet unlived, as of course we all are.

The reports themselves are mostly less than a page long, sometimes a single sentence (the quotes above are both entire reports). There’s 144 of them in total and the whole book is only 195 pages long (including the template report). It’s a quick and easy read, in many ways ideal for a commute where you can read a few reports, consider them and return the next day or on the way home. It’s also an unusually gentle read, save one incident of great drama near the end which for me felt slightly at odds with the rest of the book’s tone and that I think could possibly have been avoided (though it’s not for me to tell Baillie how to write her own book).

The Incident Report is also often very funny. Much of the book is melancholic, Miriam’s past isn’t a happy one and it’s soon evident that the library is a sort of refuge for the human flotsam of a society that has no other place for those who aren’t economically contributing, but the sheer oddness of people and the deadpan nature of Baillie’s style makes it hard not to laugh. Here’s one final quote:

We have no reason to believe the patron found these titles [books relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict] particularly arousing. It is true, however, that the books most favoured by determined masturbators are those located at the back of the library. These include Fine Art, Poetry, Plays, Literary Criticism and History.

As has probably come across by now I rather loved this one. Fiction often struggles with normal lives, and in particular with lives that are undramatically damaged, ordinarily flawed. Baillie here isn’t trying to write the Great Canadian Novel, whatever that might be, and her book is all the better for it. I sometimes describe the sorts of books that tend to win Booker prizes as widescreen novels (a term originally coined by John Self I think). Big canvas novels covering countries, generations, making grand statements about human lives and society and the ever-popular but never defined human condition. Narrow focus novels though can be much more interesting, and perhaps more truthful.

As a final word, it’s worth mentioning that physically The Incident Report is a beautiful object, Baillie’s publishers Pedlar Press really did her proud. It’s well bound on excellent quality paper and just a pleasure to hold. If any authors should happen to read this you should get a copy of this and wave it at your own publisher. If all books were printed as well as this kindles wouldn’t be nearly so popular as they are.

For another review of The Incident Report you can’t do better than that by Kevinfromcanada, here, which first brought the book to my attention. Martha Baillie’s own website is here, for those who’ve not heard her name before (I hadn’t before Kevin). Her stuff is hard to get in the UK, this is only available I think because it was listed for the Giller Prize. Next time I’m in Canada therefore I’ll have to see if she’s better stocked there, and hope that she is.

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19 Comments

Filed under Baillie, Martha, Canadian Literature

19 responses to “There are moments when time dilates like the pupil of an eye, to let everything in.

  1. Your review makes this sound very appealing, and even if you hadn’t said, I could tell that you really loved this one. If you have a moment, check out the Goodreads blurb. The book sounds quite different (although fundamental similarities exist) but the description is a turn-off.

  2. Yes, I’d be interested to see what you thought of this Guy.

    Just checked out the Goodreads blurb:

    “In a Toronto library, home to the mad and the marginalized, notes appear, written by someone who believes he is Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester from Verdis opera. Convinced that the young librarian, Miriam, is his daughter, he promises to protect her from grief. Little does he know how much loss she has already experienced; or does he? The Incident Report, both mystery and love story, daringly explores the fragility of our individual identities. Strikingly original in its structure, comprised of 140 highly distilled, lyric reports, the novel depicts the tensions between private and public storytelling, the subtle dynamics of a socially exposed workplace. The Incident Report is a novel of gestures, one that invites the reader to be astonished by the circumstances its characters confront. Reports on bizarre public behaviour intertwine with reports on the private life of the novels narrator. Shifting constantly between harmony and dissonance, elegant in its restraint and excitingly contemporary, The Incident Report takes the pulse of our fragmented urban existence with detachment and wit, while a quiet tragedy unfolds.”

    That’s accurate to be fair, but you’re right, I wouldn’t have read it based on that description. Still, I wouldn’t want to summarise it in a paragraph either.

  3. I fully agree that that Goodreads description is “fair” but misleading. What impressed me most when I read this — and what has become even stronger with time — were the characters that Baillie managed to capture in her very short chapters. Yes, there is a story that holds it together. But what made the novel different for me (and you describe it well in your review) was the parade of “normal” people (many of whom weren’t very normal at all) who passed through the library.

  4. Yes, she’s expert at conjuring up a character in just a few lines, though of course eccentricity helps with that. The story as such is important in providing some structure, but it’s not where the meat of the novel is.

    The love story elements worked better for me I think than you (though as you’ll see I had some reservations about the dramatic payoff that comes later on), but it’s the people and the microstories within the wider story (none ever really completed) that really bring the book to life.

  5. Oh, this sounds great, Max, and it’s going on the list. Love the quotes, especially Incident Report 10, and I’m intrigued by Miriam’s relationship with her father.

    I volunteer at the local community library (just a couple of days a month), and I’ve started to notice the regular visitors: people who come with their own habits, patterns of behaviour and sometimes their own stories. I often find myself wondering about their lives from the books they choose and snatches of conversation here and there. I haven’t had to fill out any incident reports, though…not yet, anyhow.

  6. I can imagine that every library has its incident reporting system, and they would be fascinating in what they capture of the patrons of a library. This is an original idea for a novel. I’m a little unsure of how the incidents could build into a continuing plot for a novel and do not understand how she worked her relationship with her father into the incidents unless he was a patron of the library.

  7. Sounds like a barrel of fun. Librarians seem to have almost as many good stories as nurses, and that’s saying something. I’m glad too that you mentioned the physical qualities of the book. I’ve been dismayed by the quality of books – especially the paper – that I’ve picked up while in the UK on a couple of trips the past few years, and most books printed in the U.S. seem only marginally better in this regard.

  8. I think you’d like this one Jacqui, it’s a lot of fun and gentle isn’t a word I get to use often here when describing books.

    Also, given you have actual library experience I’d be fascinated to hear how it matched up to what you’ve seen.

    Tony, continuing plot is perhaps overstating it, which may answer your question. It’s closer to a jigsaw puzzle where you can put the incidents together and get an image of her life, and to a lesser extent of the lives of some of those who’ve been important to her. The first page proper isn’t an incident report, it’s this:

    “I keep the following reports in the drawer of my desk. To my mind they resemble a pack of playing cards.”

    Now, you couldn’t shuffle them, they’re in order, but it’s much more a series of snashots, observations, that together give you a sense of a bigger picture than a plot. It’s more a series of things that happen, in a way it’s too realistic to have a plot.

    Scott, definitely. The off-plot bits are much of what makes the book sing.

    The physical aspects merited mentioning for precisely the reasons you get at. People talk about how much they enjoy holding books, the feel of books, but in my experience most mass market books aren’t actually particularly attractive as objects. Obviously it’s what’s inside that matters, but it’s a definite plus to have what’s outside be well made and pleasant to touch.

  9. I love the sound of this, thanks for the review. The humour in the quotes is appealing and I like the ideas of all these reports.

    I wonder if they have an “incident reporting system” in libraries in France. I have a hard time imagining it. Reporting incidents is a no-go since WWII.

    PS : what kind of food is “pick’n’mix”?

  10. Col

    I like the sound of this. It also seems to have some similarities to The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry that I read and enjoyed earlier this year – it seems to be the year of the librarian!. Will add this to my list to buy in the UK and failing that it’ll be on the list for my next trip to visit my brother in Canada

  11. leroyhunter

    Lovely stuff. I like “good gimmicky” I must say – hell, I like Perec!

  12. Tredynas Days

    Sounds intriguing: thanks for bringing to my attention a writer I hadn’t heard of. Your intro reminds me of G. Orwell’s rueful recollection of his days as a second-hand bookseller; I recall he complains about inane requests, like the customer who asked for a book, not knowing the title or author, but ‘it had a red cover’ (or something along those lines).

  13. Emma, yes, I think you’d like it.

    Pick’n’mix is basically various boxes of cheap sweets. Customers get a bag and each box has a shovel. They make choices among the boxes, (pick) and put in the bag whatever sweets from the selection they feel like (mix). The whole thing is then priced by weight, with no differentiation being made according to which sweets you chose – so you just get say a large bag of pick’n’mix and put in the bag whatever sweets you fancy and pay by how much the bag weighs.

    It’s a really common concept in the UK, and the name pick’n’mix does rather imply that you may both pick and mix. I did genuinely get asked several times a day though by people who were locals and so didn’t have a language issue or anything if they could mix them. It was mystifying.

    Col, I’ll look that out. Is there a review at your blog you could link me to?

    Leroy, there’s nowt wrong with a good gimmick I always say. Actually, I’ve never said that before, but it is true.

    Tredynas, I grew up on Orwell but hadn’t come across that before. It makes sense though, everything in my opening is true and I think anyone who worked with the public would have similar stories. People as I say are generally pretty ok, the public though can be damn weird.

  14. I’ve reviewed two of your best of 2012 here Col, Beryl Bainbridge’s Bottle Factory Outing and Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists (or perhaps it was the other Eng, I’ll have to check). I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    I see you also listed The Song of Achilles. I have that but haven’t read it yet, did you review it?

  15. Thanks Max, we have this way of selling sweets here too. It’s rather recent though (1990s, I’d say.)

  16. Ah, working with the public… retail. Hmmm. People are interesting creatures, aren’t they? While once working at a jewelry store, I had someone come up to me, out of the blue and ask, “Do you speak Russian?” Um, no. 🙂

  17. Pingback: Holland, the other country for cheese. | Book Around The Corner

  18. Literary, just catching up on some comments I missed due to holiday. Was the person who asked Russian? If not it gets extra points for surreality.

  19. Pingback: The Incident Report by Martha Baillie | JacquiWine's Journal

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