“What a wild ride — I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough,” Oprah Winfrey told her viewers as she announced Fall on Your Knees as her February 2002 Book Club selection. Set largely in a Cape Breton coal mining community called New Waterford, ranging through four generations, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s dark, insightful and hilarious first novel focuses on the Piper sisters and their troubled relationship with their father, James. Winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, it was a national bestseller in Canada for two years, and it has been translated into 17 languages.
At the start of the 20th century, James Piper sets fire to his dead mother’s piano and heads out across Cape Breton Island to find a new place to live, eventually eloping with 13-year-old Materia Mahmoud, the daughter of wealthy, traditional Lebanese parents. And so, from early on, Ann-Marie MacDonald establishes some major themes: racial tension, isolation, passion and forbidden love, which will gradually lead to incest, death in childbirth, and even murder. At the centre of this epic story is the nature of family love, beginning with the Piper sister who depend on one another for survival. Their development as characters — beautiful Kathleen, the promising diva; saintly Mercedes; Frances, the mischievous bad girl, who tries to bear the family’s burden; and disabled Lily, everyone’s favourite — forms the heart of the novel. And then there is James, their flawed father.
Moving from Cape Breton Island to the battlefields of World War I, to Harlem in New York’s Jazz Age and the Depression, the tense and enthralling plot of Fall on Your Knees contains love, pain, death, joy, and triumph. The structure of the narrative is multi-faceted, richly layered, and shifts back and forth through time as it approaches the story from different angles, “giving it a mythic quality that allows dark, half buried secrets to be gracefully and chillingly revealed” (The New York Times Book Review). As the details of the labyrinthine plot are pulled together, the question of whether it is possible to escape one’s family history gradually raises itself.
The book’s epigraph, taken from Wuthering Heights, seems appropriate to a novel concerned with the different, often violent, forms that love can take. On the inexorable journey towards tragedy we encounter dark yet vivid images of neglect and violence, yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, and yet the novel radiates an unquenchable life-force, shimmering with emotional depth, sensual with virtuoso descriptions of the power of music. It is a saga haunted by ghosts and saints, religious fanaticism and magic. MacDonald gives the most ordinary lives extraordinarily dramatic dimensions.
The Sunday Times wrote, "It is the unpredictability of this huge book that is its greatest joy." With allusions ranging from Hollywood stars to religious tracts, Fall on Your Knees simmers with vibrancy and crackling, effervescent, breathtaking language.
About the Author:
Ann-Marie MacDonald was born in West Germany and spent the first few years of her life on a Canadian air force station near Baden Baden. Her father was an officer in the RCAF and the family was posted numerous times.
She attended one year at Carleton University, Ottawa, studying languages and Classics. She went to the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal where she trained as an actor, graduating from the program in 1980. She moved to Toronto where she began an acting career. She soon became involved in creating original Canadian work in a number of contexts: collective creation, collaboration and solo writing. The work always combined theatrical innovation, politics and entertainment. She worked as an independent artist, with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille as her principal theatre “homes.” Her seminal works include the collective creation This is For You, Anna, and the multi-episodic Nancy Drew: Clue in the Fast Lane. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was MacDonald’s first solo-authored work.
She continued to work as an actor in theatres across the country and in many independent films, including I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Where the Spirit Lives and Better Than Chocolate. As well, she guest-starred on numerous television series, most recently Made in Canada. MacDonald was last on stage in the spring of 2001 when she starred in a sold-out production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. Currently, MacDonald is host of the CBC series Life and Times.
Her more recent work for theatre includes the play The Arab’s Mouth, the libretto for the chamber opera Nigredo Hotel, the collectively created The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls in which she also performed, and, most recently, the book and lyrics for the musical comedy Anything That Moves.
MacDonald’s work as an actor and writer has been honoured with a number of awards, including the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award, the Dartmouth Award, the Gemini Award, the Chalmers Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award.
Fall on Your Knees was MacDonald’s first novel and is available from Vintage Canada. She lives in Toronto with her partner, her daughter and two dogs.