Dazzle Patterns
by Alison Watt

Freehand Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-988-29818-4.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 01/08/2018

Fiction: Mainstream

Dazzle patterns are throughout Alison Watt's first novel in "the black-and-white dazzle pattern of a supply ship," the hull of the Olympic "gleaming white, blue, and black dazzle patterns," and a canvas depicting a winter scene, "a ship in the middle distance, dazzle-patterned" as painted by Arthur Lismer.

Lismer, who would become a member of Canada's Group of Seven, is one of the characters modelled after a real person in Alison Watt's novel set in 1917. He "is known for his paintings of the ships in dazzle patterns in the Halifax harbour," Watt says in her author's notes. As Lismer explains to two art students who are key characters in the novel, Fred Baker and Clare Holmes: "Patterns break up the silhouette of the ship at sea. Not so much camouflage as artifice." There's no actual proof that the patterns helped when facing the enemy during World War I (1914-1918), but as Lismer says: "Can't make sense of what is right in front of you." The artifice, the hiding in plain sight, is a theme of this masterful novel.

Creativity, and the transformative aspects of it, could be said to be a theme as well as Fred is a glass craftsman at a Halifax, Nova Scotia glass factory. He has ideas for other works including windows with dazzle patterns. Another of Fred and Clare's teachers is Mary Hamilton who is based on the real life artist Mary Ritter Hamilton, "one of the most accomplished and unsung Canadian artists of her time."

Near the end of the book, Clare remembers what Mary said about negative space. "That absence which can define objects, sometimes the key to seeing the true shape of things."

The timeframe of the novel is just before and following an explosion in Halifax which occurred on December 6, 1917 when two ships, one laden with explosives, collided in Halifax Harbour. Watt feels a personal connection to the event as her grandmother arrived in Halifax, from the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, shortly after the explosion, "to fill one of the many empty jobs."

Various settings are described in the novel, following the shattering effects of the explosion, and all are done so well: from the fictionalized Halifax glass factory where Fred and Clare are employed; the Annapolis Valley where Clare and her fiancé Leo are from; the art studio; to the trenches in France where Leo is a soldier.

Watt pays exquisite attention to detail. She writes of a school that "still smelled of books and chalk and children, their woollens and unwashed hair." The description is of Chebucto School which became a makeshift morgue following the explosion.

The effects and cost of war, the healing gifts of art, and the enduring nature of love are all expertly blended in this fine novel. As Watt said in a CBC radio interview, "Beauty and spirit survives in many forms and is what the foundations of survival, both personal and cultural, are built on ... The research and writing of this book has given me an abiding sense that the inherent goodness of people emerges in great crisis."

Alison Watt is a writer and painter and gives art workshops at her studio on Protection Island (Nanaimo, British Columbia), as well as internationally. She was originally a biologist and is the author of The Last Island: A Naturalist's Sojourn on Triangle Island. Her poetry collection is entitled Circadia. Visit her website.

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