Luck, to Joan Barfoot, is more than just the title of her latest novel. She sees the cruel play of chance everywhere: in an innocent woman in Toronto caught in the crossfire of a Mafia shooting, in famine in Niger, in genocide in Darfur.
But she also recognizes luck's kinder face, and it's a nod to the benevolence of chance when she remarks, "Awards are a crapshoot."
Over the course of more than two decades, Barfoot cultivated a dedicated if modest following, mostly in her native Canada but also in Europe and the U.K., publishing novels that were well reviewed yet never gained her wider public recognition. But Barfoot's status changed dramatically with her ninth book. In 2002, Critical Injuries, about a middle-aged woman who finds herself at the center of an ice-cream store robbery, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Then, last fall, Barfoot's reputation got an even bigger boost when her 10th novel, Luck, was shortlisted for Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In a country obsessed with its fiction writers, a Giller nomination means national fame: the event is covered on prime-time television and the next day the winner usually appears on the cover of national newspapers.
Though Barfoot didn't win the Giller, making the shortlist meant getting named in the same conversation as such past winners and nominees as Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Rohinton Mistry and Michael Ondaatje.
That higher profile in Canada should help sales as Luck is released in the U.S. this month by Carroll & Graf. It's only the fourth of her books to be published in the U.S.
As we talk early one winter day at her elegantly decorated postwar bungalow in London, Ontario (roughly three hours west of Toronto), she tells me that the real joy of the added attention is seeing her readership grow and her books receive a longer shelf life. Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, she recalls being approached by two passionate readers, each of whom claimed reading her books had changed their lives. "Those are the best, most profound moments a writer can get," Barfoot says.
Ontario OriginsBefore becoming an author, Barfoot worked for several years as a journalist. Born in Owen Sound, a small southern Ontario town, she wrote her debut novel, Abra, while a reporter at various southern Ontario newspapers. "I came back to London after I'd written most of the first novel, because I'd run out of money and there was a newspaper I could work at without crumbling." Abra, about a woman who leaves her family to live in isolation, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1978 and Dancing in the Dark, about a housewife who murders her cheating husband, was turned into a well-regarded Canadian film. Throughout the '80s and '90s, Barfoot made a decent living off her fiction thanks in part to the determination of her longtime agent, Bella Pomer, who has sold rights to her books in about 10 countries. ("Also," says Barfoot, "it doesn't hurt to have enduring support, including blurbs, from people like Carol Shields and Alice Munro.")
It's natural to wonder, when a writer's career explodes with her ninth and 10th books, what did she do differently with those two? On one level, Barfoot explains, nothing has changed. "Every book you just start all over again. It's all from scratch. Other jobs get easier the more you do them. You learn how to do them fast, and how to do them well and better, but fiction doesn't seem to work that way." She is willing to admit, though, that maybe her perspective has changed with time. "I'm obviously getting older," she says. "That doesn't mean better or more skilled, but maybe it means that you spend more time thinking about what the rules of life might be." And what are those rules? Barfoot demurs. "Now I only have questions. I never have answers."
Wearing her thick gray hair in a classic bob with bangs, she certainly seems more at home in her skin than many of her age-resisting boomer contemporaries. Experience has brought her freedom as well as wisdom. "Being a female writer, and writing books that can be relatively easily categorized as domestic," she says, "I have noticed an interesting thing. Some people don't see larger themes in books set in a household. I find that irritating. So when I was starting Luck, I thought: I have nothing to lose and I don't care—so just call the bloody thing Luck and put it up in neon. And I still received some reviews that said, 'Oh, what an adorable little domestic novel, dealing with three women, blah, blah, blah.' That's probably another thing that's changed: I now feel much more free with my own voice. And I have a pretty dark sense of humor."
The Weight of Coincidence
Luck has more than humor. On the surface, it's a domestic comedy about death in middle age, but the broader theme of chance is carefully woven through the whole. Partly it's a story about grief. When Philip Lawrence dies, he leaves his artist wife, Nora; her model, Beth; and their housekeeper, Sophie, who was also his lover, to pick up the pieces. The most compelling aspect of the book is how the women's backstories are played out in relation to each other. Each of the women feels lucky in a different way: Nora for her artistic success, Beth for her staggering beauty, and Sophie, who has just returned from a failed mission to aid a Central African country in genocidal free fall, just for living in the West.
Critical Injuries is also about the way sudden coincidences have large-scale, unexpected consequences. There was no single personal event, no random event in Barfoot's own life that shaped this aspect of her vision. Decades ago, however, she took a three-month trip through the Sahara on a convoy of old WWII Bedford trucks that permanently altered her feelings about chance. "The southern parts of the Sahara, and Mali and Niger, were hit by a famine, and in one village, a young girl came running after us, begging us to take her baby sister back home. Then I returned to Canada and was gobsmacked by expressways and showers and supermarkets."
Whenever people ask her about luck, she says, that's primarily what she thinks about: the contrast between safe, stable countries like her own and war-torn regions like the Sudan. "I feel very lucky. I get to do pretty much exactly what I want, pretty much at any minute of the day. We 1% of the planet lead very lucky lives. And 99% of the world's population is enduring huge suffering. And I can't see beyond luck why that is."
The division between good and bad luck isn't limited to the grand divide between the first and third worlds. "About a year after Critical Injuriescame out, a woman was shot in Toronto. She and her daughter went into a sandwich shop and she... got caught in the crossfire of some kind of Mafia thing and was shot. That's just a random woman. I used to think getting out of bed was the only safe thing you could do in a day, and then I read that Joan Rivers or somebody broke her hip getting out of bed. That's not even safe. You can't be going around petrified all the time, but it doesn't hurt to know that as the peaceful day goes by, it should be appreciated."