Girl Runner is the story of Aganetha Smart, a Canadian farm girl who gains a brief moment in the spotlight when she wins gold for Canada running the 800 meter race in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.
When we first meeting Aganetha, however, she is 105 years old, living in a hazy dream-state in a nursing home, alone and forgotten by the world, having outlived her entire family and anyone who ever knew her. With the unexpected arrival of a young man and woman, Aganetha finds herself bundled up for a supposed family visit with these two strangers, who proceed to drive her to her family’s old farm.
As she travels the familiar roads, Aggie’s thoughts return to her early days. Bit by bit, we learn of her family’s tumultuous past, the sibling love and tensions that featured throughout her life, and that small period of time in which Aggie was a star.
From early childhood, Aggie ran so fast she was practically flying, and her need to run is a core piece of her soul. In fact, as she tells us through her fractured memories, Aggie kept running until midway through her 90s, when a final family tragedy seems to have sapped her of her drive to run once and for all.
Through Aggie’s reminiscences, we gain a picture of what life was like for young women in Canada in the 1920s, with a heady mix of independence in the big city, the glory of being selected for the national Olympic team, and the pain of love gone wrong and friendship betrayed.
As we move further into the story, Aggie reveals secrets upon secrets, until the deepest, darkest mystery of her lonely life is finally unearthed. Through her memories, we get a glimpse of the life of a strong woman who achieved great things yet never had what she most wanted.
Girl Runner is a moving story that seems simple at the outset, yet eventually moves into the complicated territory of a large family with criss-crossing needs, deceptions, joys, and shames. Each new memory unravels yet another thread in the mystery of Aganetha’s life and helps us understand how she lived so long and yet ended up so lost and alone.
I did find the time jumps somewhat distracting. The story bounces between modern-day Aggie, wheelchair bound in the nursing home, and her memories of the past — but her memories come in a jumble, not chronologically. I suppose this makes sense, in that we’re seeing the events of the past as they resurface in this very old woman’s confused mind — so of course, it’s not linear and neatly spelled out.
While this approach works in finally revealing the full story by the end of the book, it does make it a bit challenging for the reader to unknot the storylines and put together the pieces into a coherent, logical picture.
However, it’s worth sticking it out. While the narrative jumps take some getting used to, once the story hits its stride, it flows nicely and quickly. By the end, I couldn’t stop reading. I just had to know what really happened and how it all fit together.
Told in language that’s brisk but personal, Girl Runner is an intriguing family story as well as a tribute to pioneering girl athletes and the obstacles along their path to glory. Despite its long time arc, spanning about 90 years, Girl Runner is less than 300 pages in length. It’s not a long book, but it is deep and emotional, and I recommend it to anyone who might enjoy an historical novel built around a strong, enigmatic woman.
About the Author:
Carrie Snyder’s Girl Runner is shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her previous book, The Juliet Stories, was shortlisted for the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award and named one of the Globe and Mail‘s Top 100 Books of the Year. Her first book, the short story collection Hair Hat, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award for Short Fiction. A mother of four, Carrie lives with her family in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Title: Girl Runner
Author: Carrie Snyder
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult fiction (contemporary/historical)
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours
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