4* (out of 5*)
Lily stays sitting. “Frances. What if Ambrose is the Devil?” “He’s not the Devil. I know who the Devil is and it isn’t Ambrose.” “Who’s the Devil?” Frances crouches down as if she were talking to Trixie. “That’s something I’ll never tell you, Lily, no matter how old you get to be, because the Devil is shy. It makes him angry when someone recognizes him, so once they do the Devil gets after them. And I don’t want the Devil to get after you.” “Is the Devil after you?”
This is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s debut novel. I need to keep reminding myself about this fact that it’s a debut novel because it is a polished work of complexity and beauty.
Fall on Your Knees, set in Cape Breton at in the first half of the 20th century, tells the story of Materia, Kathleen, Mercedes, Frances, and Lily – i.e. all the women of the Piper family. Each woman has a voice, a distinct history, a distinct outlook on life – and a distinct fate. So, really this is a novel with five main characters – not to mention James, who dwells at the centre of all their lives.
This book has so many layers that it was easy to be sucked into the world of the Pipers. But it is not a comfortable place. Far from it, it is a world full of harshness, brutality, and abuse, where each of the characters is trying to escape the confines of what holds them. Be it religion, loyalty, or something else – each character has their own form of imprisonment.
“God did not put me on this earth to stand by while my sister Frances is killed. Beaten is one thing. Wrongly touched is one thing. Stabbed with a bayonet is another. Push. Be strong enough to carry the burden of sin that goes with doing the right thing. There is only one saint in this family and I’m not it. God has made Mercedes a judge. No one loves you for that. Not like a crippled child who’s prone to visions. Whom Mercedes prizes. Not like a fallen woman who makes people laugh. Whom Mercedes loves.”
When reading some of the reviews, the aspect that I have picked up on most is that people have read this because it was an Oprah bookclub read. I am usually hesitant to follow up hyped up books, but sometimes, just sometimes, they are a exactly the type of book that will work their way into your soul.
Fall on Your Knees is a perfectly constructed family saga, but it is also more than this. It is a beautifully sketched insight into the human condition.
Mercedes is neither a saint nor a sinner. She is somewhere in between. She is why purgatory was invented.