Review: Girl Runner, by Carrie Snyder

Carrie Snyder, Girl Runner (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2014). Hardcover, 304 pages, $29.95.

Waterloo writer Carrie Snyder is known for her acclaimed works of short fiction, Hair Hat (2004), the Governor General’s Award finalist, The Juliet Stories (2012), and now her debut novel, Girl Runner. Snyder’s novel offers a fearless and lovable protagonist, akin to a Kit Pearson heroine, to follow in and out of time.

Girl Runner takes place largely in Ontario, the first person narration of Aganetha (Aggie) Smart alternating in time from the present, at age 104 in a nursing home, to the past, beginning in the 1920s. The majority of the novel dwells in the past, on snapshots of Aggie’s childhood and stint as an Olympic athlete. In the present, Aggie is visited by two young strangers who take her on a mysterious journey away from the nursing home.

The first chapter provides a neat snapshot of Aggie and offers a hint of the audacity to come. Aggie’s stubbornness even in old age is apparent; she is acognisant, tenacious woman whose story is clearly not yet over: “Do they practice their chirping in the mirror, these nurses? This one is arranging her sweater like I am her plaything, a dried-apple-head doll she’s crafted herself and would like to show off to someone who’s come to play.”

Aggie—a fierce, independent woman—turns Girl Runner into a feminist achievement. She forges her own path throughout her life, refusing to adhere to the social norms prescribed to women in her time.

In an argument with her then-boyfriend Johnny about her paid modelling gigs, a young Aggie remains defiant of expectations:

“Why do you have to go and be photographed like that,” he says, sincerely.

“Well.” I feel defensive. “It pays for this apartment for one thing. And I’m saving up.”

“For what? You’ll just be married someday.”

“Will I?”

In one passage, Aggie discovers that her former best friend, Glad, is marrying Johnny, when she notices Glad’s “ring, a band of cold metal.” In this spare, lacklustre description of the engagement ring, Snyder illustrates Aggie’s detachment to the idea of marriage, and also succeeds in making it appear universally unattractive.

A strong female character is needed to challenge the sexist ideals that exist in this story in sport. A pivotal moment in Aggie’s running career is based on the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, where women were first allowed to compete in track and field. Debatable speculations of collapsing female runners post-race led to a ban of women competing more than 200 metres in the Olympics—a state of affairs that didn’t change until 1960.

As she explains in a postscript, Snyder wrote Girl Runner in part to draw attention to sexism in sport, and the strides that were required to bring about change. After Aggie’s and Canada’s Olympic victories in Girl Runner, it is reported that “the collapse of runners after the final proves the distance is too taxing for a girl’s inferior strength”—even though Aggie notes that she saw many boys fall down after their runs as well. Aggie and her mentor, Miss Alexandrine Gibb, defy these stereotypes of weak women throughout the novel, finding ways to keep running.

But this piece of historical fiction is also a story of loss. Aggie lives long enough to outlast everyone she’s ever known, and thus must suffer the death of her loved ones.

Despite her losses, Snyder writes joy into Aggie’s life; Aggie’s young adult years are filled with fame and triumph, and Snyder’s depiction of victory is satisfying.

Girl Runner is also about moments lost and good memories turning to dust. By juxtaposing moments from the past and present, we can see that a moment is just a blink in time, quickly gone: “What’s a week, a month, a year or forty? It vanishes too. Slowly, steadily, we empty and shutter room after room until our lives shrink to the space we can manage to occupy.” When an elderly Aggie visits one particular room in her old house, memories, smells, and feelings crumble in her “stiff fingers, mouldy. Dust.”

Post-fame, Aggie becomes an obituary writer; Snyder employs short obituaries in the novel to indicate the passage of time, and to point to the short collection of words we amount to in the end, despite our tremendous effect on others. The obituaries become more frequent towards the end of the story, and Snyder pairs characters’ obituaries with the last moments Aggie spends with them to underscore this sense of hopeless tribute.

At times it is difficult to decipher which time period it is, as flashbacks come and go within chapters, but it’s also enjoyable to become lost in time with Aggie. Aganetha Smart is a character all readers will root for; Girl Runner is a celebration of ardent, unapologetic women, and those who won’t stop running. Snyder provides a satisfyingly emotional and gripping read.

 

Carlyn Schellenberg is a Winnipeg writer with an Advanced English degree from the University of Manitoba.