Various Positions: A Novel by Martha Schabas

Various Positions: A Novel

byMartha Schabas

Paperback | June 28, 2011

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Nuanced, fresh, and gorgeously well-written, Martha Schabas' extraordinary debut novel takes us inside the beauty and brutality of professional ballet, and the young women striving to make it in that world. Shy and introverted, and trapped between the hyper-sexualized world of her teenaged friends and her dysfunctional family, Georgia is only at ease when she's dancing. Fortunately, she's an unusually talented and promising dancer. When she is accepted into the notoriously exclusive Royal Ballet Academy--Canada's preeminent dance school--Georgia thinks she has made the perfect escape. In ballet, she finds the exhilarating control and power she lacks elsewhere in her life: physical, emotional and, increasingly, sexual.
This dynamic is nowhere more obvious than in Georgia's relationship with Artistic Director Roderick Allen. As Roderick singles her out as a star and subjects her to increasingly vicious training, Georgia obsesses about becoming his perfect student, disciplined and sexless. But a disturbing incident with a stranger on the subway, coupled with her dawning recognition of the truth of her parents' unhappy marriage, causes her to radically reassess her ideas about physical boundaries--a reassessment that threatens both Roderick's future at the academy and Georgia's ambitions as a ballerina.

About The Author

Martha Schabas' articles, book reviews and fiction have appeared in The Globe and Mail, The New Quarterly, ELLE Canada, Broken Pencil, and Maisonneuve. She holds an M.A. in English Literature from Queen’s University, and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the David Higham Literary Award. ...

Details & Specs

Title:Various Positions: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8.2 × 5.72 × 0.98 inPublished:June 28, 2011Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385668767

ISBN - 13:9780385668767

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Read from the Book

I found the envelope in a pile of letters on the hallway radiator. It was white, flat, ordinary as any envelope except for the strange look of my name across the front. I wasn’t used to getting mail. There was a logo in the corner, the curving, antique script of the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. I took the envelope up to my room. My fingers were stupid with adrenalin, and as I ripped off the top, I tore the letter too. I read the time and date of my audition aloud and recorded the information on the Gelsey Kirkland calendar above my desk, filling the March 27 box with tiny handwriting. I observed what I’d written as though I didn’t trust it, staring, squinting, trying to look at the ink askance. I muttered patchy sounds under my breath, little words like yes and good. March 27 needed to be distinguished from its meaningless neighbours, so I drew a green border around the date and added jagged diagonal strokes that tied like a knot in the middle of the square. I stepped backward, examined my work. It all looked a bit like the kind of flammability warning you’d find on a hairspray bottle. I worried this was a bad omen. Symbols of explosions might not lend themselves naturally to good luck. But maybe it could be a kind of reverse jinx, like whispering merde before going on stage, or grabbing your partner in the wings and screaming “Go to hell!” beneath the opening chords of the overture. That’s what they did in Russia. Above the March grid of the calendar was a black-and white photo of Gelsey in rehearsal. She was standing with her back against a studio barre and bending at the waist to fiddle with the ribbon of her pointe shoe. Her oversized leg warmers crawled up to the middle of her thighs and she wore a leotard that reflected light like tinfoil. The material pinched at her chest in the shape of a tiny accordion. On either side of this accordion there should have been boobs, but there were no boobs; there was virtually nothing at all. Ha! It was a laugh in the face of everything. I had been watching Gelsey on the Arts & Entertainment Network since my mom ordered specialty cable three months before. I had seen her in five different ballets and I loved her. She didn’t look wet and brainless like some other ballerinas, dancing across the stage as if they were lost in heavy fog. She attacked her steps as though she had something against them, pouncing ferociously from one to the next. These pounces were punctuated every few minutes by close-ups of Gelsey yearning into the camera. Sometimes her pale face would take up the entire frame and just hang there in a look of incurable distraction. Pain hammered deep around her crystalline eyes. A tenderness pillowed her lips. It was a beauty I had never seen before, too extreme for human beings. Somewhere along her vacuumed cheeks, inside the pout of her ruby mouth, Gelsey became less girl and more creature, so feminine she cancelled herself out. I folded the letter back into the envelope and sat down on my desk chair. I would e-mail Isabel and tell her about my audition. I turned on my computer and waited for my e-mail account to load new messages. I had a separate folder for Isabel that I’d labelled sister. This wasn’t really necessary, considering she was the only one who ever e-mailed me. The file name also wasn’t technically accurate. But Isabel had told me it was tacky to always call her my half-sister in front of other people, and I wanted to make up for the mistake. I imagined scenarios where Isabel would happen to see the title of the e-mail folder. She’d be home at Christmas and we’d be hanging out in my room. She’d be telling me about the stuff she usually tells me about, her most recent semester at university, about after-dark activities and theories on gender and meaning. At some point I’d have to get up to pee. Alone in my room, she’d glance at my computer screen, see the only folder in my e-mail account and smile to herself. When I came back into the room she’d poke me in the ribs and tell me how grown up I seemed. My inbox loaded zero new messages. I clicked on the sister folder and scrolled through old messages instead. Isabel always filled in the subject lines, titling her e-mails things like “W’sup” and “Hola Infanta” and “Georgia on My Mind.” I clicked on one e-mail with the subject line “Gelsey.” It was from a few months ago, soon after I’d told her about my new idol. Isabel had written that she was “skeptical of a society so predicated on celebrity-worship.” I had typed “predicated” into and written back that I wasn’t trying to “derive, base, found, proclaim, assert, declare or affirm anything.” Isabel hadn’t been convinced. She’d done a little Googling and had written back that Gelsey was a cokehead who’d dated Pat Sajak in the eighties, and that her lips had been injected with an amount of collagen that Health Canada considered “unadvisable.” When I hadn’t believed her, she’d sent me Dancing on My Grave, Gelsey’s tell-all autobiography, via priority post. I looked at the bookshelf across my room. I could pick out the spine immediately, the font reflective like a speed sign on the highway, the rose wilting onto the word Grave. The spine looked worn, even from a distance, with a deep wrinkle scarred through its middle. I had read the book three times now and knew the quotations on the back cover by heart: “the dark side of fame,” “a descent into drugs and madness,” “a tortured quest for perfection.” I loved Gelsey more with every read. Not only was she the most wonderful ballerina the world had ever seen, but she had suffered something horrifying and her face was brimming with poisonous chemicals. Isabel had been e-mailing me approximately twice a week since she’d moved downtown for university. She lived in a three-storey house with six other girls, one working shower and no TV. Every time I visited I felt cold inside my knee caps and smelled old beer and Pantene Pro-V. Still, I loved visiting her. My dad had only been once, and he called the house Moldova. How are things in Moldova? he’d ask when Isabel came home for dinner and he wasn’t at the hospital. Have you girls managed to get a land line yet? Isabel’s mouth would fatten into a smirk. Moldova isn’t so bad anyway, she’d say. It has a thriving viticulture industry. It’s the crossroads of Latin and Slavic worlds. My dad would lift his hands on either side of his body, palms facing Isabel as if she were a bandit with a gun. I would stand absolutely still, do my best to embody neutrality so that no one could accuse me of picking sides. Right before she’d left for university, Isabel had taken me to the park for a talk. We sat on the swings and I followed her lead, digging my heels into the gravel beneath us, engraving hearts and then wiping them clean with my soles. The kid swinging next to me was pumping his legs hard, trying to propel his body towards rooftops, but Isabel was unmoving, so I would be too. I watched a tiny bulge in the middle of her neck and then another, as though she were swallowing her thoughts. Half an hour went by and she still hadn’t done any talking. Pins and needles fried the underside of my thighs. Finally she looked at me. The greyness of her eyes had deepened. They were the colour of the sidewalk after a thunderstorm. “Things might be difficult when I leave, George. You’ll have to be extra grown up.” “Sure.” “Just—” She paused, stabbed the rubber toe of her sneaker into the middle of a dusty heart so that a cloud of sand wafted up her ankle. “I know it’s difficult when Dad’s always—” She cut herself off and looked at the sky. “Just don’t let it get to you. They’re adults and it’s not your problem. And call me if you need anything. Like anytime, whenever.” I nodded slowly, trying to put lots of meaning into it because I knew that’s what she wanted to see. Isabel generally talked about my mom that way, ran circles around the problem without ever stopping to look it in the face. In her last year of high school, Isabel had stayed with us less and less, and this had distorted her perception of what was happening between my parents. Isabel never saw my mom’s tiny provocations, the way she would stare out the window and announce the strangest things out of nowhere—that she missed smoking cigarettes in her old Ford Cortina, that she was curious about neo-punk. One time after dinner, I passed my mom the lasagna dish and she said she’d rather ram her head into the kitchen sink than wash it. Another time, when there was a segment on the radio about the fruit bat, she stepped out into the backyard and started to cry. I swiped my finger on the trackpad to wake up the computer screen. I clicked on the Compose button and typed Isabel’s e-mail into the address bar. I told her about my letter and asked how things were going at Moldova. I paused over the subject line. Then I brought my fingers back to the keyboard and typed My Audition. I sat back in my chair and looked at the title. I deleted Audition and wrote Career.

Editorial Reviews

Shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s 2012 Evergreen Award Quill & Quire - "Best Books of 2011" The Globe and Mail - "Best First Fictions of 2011" "The year's best debut."—NOW Magazine“Schabas's dialogue is often extraordinarily expressive, compressed to a tight code for swirling inner worlds. . . . This is a wonderful, courageous debut.” —The Globe and Mail “A thought-provoking look at femininity and sex, made all the more confusing by that ultimate contact sport—ballet.” —Kirkus Reviews “Schabas skillfully weaves themes of power, communication, trust, intimacy, and betrayal through this character-driven tale, as 14-year-old ballet dancer Georgia struggles to find a place where she belongs and people she can trust.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review“…Various Positions is a provocative, dark,  and challenging read, which provides a fresh take on difficult questions about human nature in our contemporary world.” —Quill & Quire “Martha Schabas is clearly a natural with long-form fiction. . . .The sign of a truly good novel is one where your personal interest in whatever topic or milieu (in this case, The Royal Toronto Ballet Academy) doesn’t matter.  It is a good story told in an original way, and if it were about monster trucks, another thing I’m less than enthused about, I would still be intrigued because Schabas writes so well. . . . Schabas is a writer in full control of her craft, and her debut book is a worth and important addition to this seasons list.” —Zoe Whittall, National Post“[A] read-in-one-gulp debut.” —The Toronto Star“Beautifully descriptive and disturbing. . . .Schabas’s prose is engaging and provocative, full of images and ideas that dance through the mind.” —Winnipeg Free Press“A highly realistic, totally gut-wrenching portrayal of teenage awkwardness and acting out. Those unflattering realities make for a compelling contrast with the flawless, fragile elegance of the ballet.” —Here Magazine“Rarely does a debut novel nail its subject with such precision, but Martha Schabas has taken the confusion of teenage girls and the world of ballet to create a stunning novel. . . . Various Positions is amazing. Its insight into the world of girls, ballet, and lame parents is pitch perfect. Ballet fans will appreciate the candour of this novel, but its appeal is much broader than that audience. Various Positions is an outstanding novel, full of wisdom and language that dances across the page.” —The Vancouver Sun