Tear

By Erica McKeen

Tear
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A GLOBE AND MAIL BEST BOOK OF 2022

49TH SHELF EDITOR’S PICK FOR SEPTEMBER 2022

A reclamation of female rage and a horrifyingly deformed Bildungsroman.

Frances is quiet and reclusive, so much so that her upstairs roommates sometimes forget she exists. Isolated in the basement, ... Read more


Overview

A GLOBE AND MAIL BEST BOOK OF 2022

49TH SHELF EDITOR’S PICK FOR SEPTEMBER 2022

A reclamation of female rage and a horrifyingly deformed Bildungsroman.

Frances is quiet and reclusive, so much so that her upstairs roommates sometimes forget she exists. Isolated in the basement, and on the brink of graduating from university, Frances herself starts to question the realities of her own existence. She can’t remember there being a lock on the door at the top of the basement stairs—and yet, when she turns the knob, the door won’t open. She can’t tell the difference between her childhood memories, which bloom like flowers in the dark basement, and her dreams. Worse still, she can’t ignore the very real tapping sound now coming—insistently, violently—threatening to break through her bedroom wall.

With the thematic considerations of Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson’s work, and in the style of Herta Muller and Daisy Johnson, Tear is both a horrifyingly deformed Bildungsroman and a bristling reclamation of female rage. Blurring the real and the imagined, this lyric debut novel unflinchingly engages with contemporary feminist issues and explores the detrimental effects of false narratives, gaslighting, and manipulation on young women. 

Erica McKeen

Erica McKeen was born in London, Ontario. She studied at Western University, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, longlisted for the Guernica Prize, and shortlisted for The Malahat Review Open Season Awards. Her stories have been published in PRISM international, filling Station, The Dalhousie Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Tear is her first novel.

Excerpt

The house has a dark grey shingled roof. It looks black in full summer sunlight. It’s rough on fingertips, on kneecaps, if you climb onto it from the hedges that line the backyard, which you can do, which a grown person can manage if she stays close to the trunk of the hedge growth. The branches are thin and bendy. They tear off, soft like a green tongue on the inside. Watch the eavestrough, it’s already leaning off the edge of the roof, catching more leaves than rain. It’s already rusting—it rattles in the wind.

Down below is the front face of the house. It’s made of grey and white bricks. A concrete porch with wrought-iron railings juts out in front of the front door. A concrete path extends from the porch and joins with the concrete driveway. One large window cuts through the brick, the living room window.

If you look closely you can see the smudgy outline of a face in the window. It blends with the reflection of trees, the road. The face looks blue in the mixture of sky and skin in the glass. Sometimes it looks grey.

Lean closer. Here’s the cheekbone, the eyebrow, the long bend of lips.

This is Frances. Frances James. Her eyes are slanted, minutely too far apart. Her hair is frizzed, almost curly, as if run through with static. She has freckles on her nose. In her lap are a bundle of fingers, clustered up, perhaps too tightly, the knuckles bent, the knuckles white. She watches out the window. It’s morning and cold outside, so cold she can feel it through the glass. She watches the children as they walk to school.

These children rake up a memory: some memory of red shoes on her feet, of brown tiles beneath these shoes.

She stops it there. Stops the memory and fills herself up with breath. Her lips droop slightly, drop toward her jawbone, lose their stiffness for a moment. Frances strengthens the knot of her fingers. Frances digs her toes into the floorboards. She feels the vertebrae in her neck creak as she turns her head, hears the children’s feet clop like echoes through the glass. She turns away from them and presses her hands into the seat of the couch to lift herself.

Little red shoes and brown tile beneath these shoes, she thinks, and in her mind she jumps from tile to tile, avoiding the white lines between. Her body is small and easy to move. Her brain is simple and fluid. But when Frances looks down she sees socks instead of shoes, floorboards beneath these socks. Her body is tall and stuttering. Her skull feels swollen and heavy. She has the taste of blood on her tongue: she’s bitten it, cut it open in her concentration, her jumping. But where was she jumping, and to what? A silence curdles up from the cracks in the laminate flooring. The living room is quiet around her. The house is quiet. Her roommates are gone, out to class, and she is alone and curled up inside herself, and the walls are very thin, she feels, she can feel the wind through the wallpaper.

Frances sees those little red shoes—they hang in front of her eyes—as she goes through the kitchen at the back of the house to the basement door. She moves through the basement door and down into the basement, to her bedroom where the window looks out onto the backyard, away from the street and the children.

She closes the door behind her.

In four months she’ll be finished university, gone from this house. Frances closes her eyes and imagines herself invisible. She lies down in her bed and unrolls her invisible toes.

Reviews

"Tear is a deeply claustrophobic novel, concerned with what is real and what is imagined, and how being confined between the two is genuine torture. It is about the fears that come from within and the monsters we manifest as a result, forces that eventually destroy us—become us—without anyone even noticing. … It offers up the truly destructive forces of human emotion and human neglect, and gives us a loss that matters—excruciatingly so. "—Stacey May Fowles, in Book Therapy for Open Book

"Tearis at once a moment, a novel, and a life. Drawing on Mary Shelley and creating something all her own, Erica McKeen writes with urgency and mastery. The elliptical movement of time draws the story in and out like a breath. Memory, experience, and imagination collapse into a dizzying narrative of grief, isolation, and illness, spanning years of a young student's life, reaching to the depths of her inner turmoil, and the depths of her basement apartment. In prose rich with texture, Tear throbs on the page, holds one in its grip until it's finished. McKeen writes like she can't help it. "—Fawn Parker, author of What We Both Know

"Where does trauma make its home? What shape does it take when it is suppressed, left to wander the hallways of our minds, linger in the spaces between? Tear puts these questions at its core, spinning them into a twilight world where materiality and metaphor collide as trauma becomes embodied in its quest to live and be heard. … [What results] is a gripping, frightening novel with a deeply gothic sensibility somewhere between Henry James and Shirley Jackson. […] Tear is a delightfully creepy, lyrical novel. ”—Broken Pencil

"[Tear] is making waves for its delicious creepiness and brilliant storytelling, which McKeen creates with expert control in the tradition of Shirley Jackson. Filled with quiet dread and building to a climax both frightful and satisfying, McKeen is not only setting out to scare our pants off – she's exploring complex social issues about identity, isolation, manipulation and, in particular, women's anger and what we're comfortable witnessing in terms of female rage. "Open Book

"Tear is a melodious novel reckoning with adolescence, the complexities of home and the body. Mckeen’s protagonist, Frances James, is both bewildering and brilliant as she is introspective, navigating her isolated life in London, Ontario. She is a character whose pain and memory works to unearth a turbulent hunger for the past parts of herself, a hunger that will not subside. It is a hunger readers will begin to feel, too, as they immerse themselves in this luscious and monstrously deep work of horror. "—Mallory Tater, author of This Will Be Good and The Birth Yard

" "Tear" as in ripping a page from a book, rejecting a storyline. "Tear" as in a tear-stained face, letting out a scream. Tear, a haunting homonym. ..Readers will feel the prose simmering on their skin as they witness a surreal journey in a musty basement. "—Rachel Shabalin, Filling Station

"An unnerving study of isolation and alienation, Tear pulls at the threads of a fraying border between the real and the monstrous uncanny. McKeen’s prose is taut and evocative; the novel simmers with repressed rage and then confronts us with its thrilling and terrifying transmutation. A fearless and unforgettable debut. "—Aimee Wall, author of We, Jane

"This haunting, disorienting tale traces Frances’s descent into madness with empathetic precision…There's heartbreak in the girlhood silences of Tear, a hallucinatory psychological horror novel in which you only have to watch out for the quiet ones because no one watched out for them. ”—Michelle Schingler, Foreword Review

"Dark and unsettling, Tear gives us a portrait of sensitive, artistic Frances and her subsequent isolation that turns into a vivid inward journey. This novel is feverish and eerie with much to say about the impact of early memories on our adult lives, as well as on our dreams and psyche. Frances’s internal descent is vivid, captivating, and at times jarring. "—Sophie McCreesh, author of Once More, With Feeling

"Is Frances James sleeping or dead? Is she trapped in one of her grandfather’s macabre stories? Did her childhood best friend imagine her into existence? McKeen’s debut is a story about stories: a scratching sound emanates from the walls, doors are suddenly and unexpectedly locked, a tree grows around a baby rabbit’s skull, and a young woman wiggles her toes to remind herself that she is real. Tear is a startling novel about monstrosity, femininity, and embodiment that leaves us with the impression that the most uncanny spaces—and the ones we should be most frightened of—are the homes we live within. With Tear, McKeen shows a unique and striking voice that will haunt readers long after they’ve turned the last page. "—Amy LeBlanc, author of I Know Something You Don’t Know and Unlocking

"Clarice Lispector meets Daphne du Maurier in Erica McKeen's beautiful, surreal debut. One of the novel's brilliant inventions is a dire space, just off to one side of consciousness, where bodies and minds dissolve and gather new form, where loneliness is so real it comes alive. With animistic, lugubrious prose, McKeen pulls the reader into the visionary emptiness of Frances James’s alienation, toward a magnificent, exhilarating study of reality and self. Like a ghost haunting her own life, Frances shocked me with her uncanniness and moved me with her need. Here, distortions are as exquisite as they are grotesque. This is triumphant terror. "—Seyward Goodhand, author of Even That Wildest Hope

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