Always Someone to Kill the Doves / By F.T. Flahiff
NeWest Press, 356 pp, $34.95, softcover.
Sheila Watson was a tiny, perfect-looking woman, slight of build and exactly five feet tall, who wrote a tiny, perfect novel entitled The Double Hook. It appeared, after some difficulty, in 1959, when she was 50, and it became a key text in Canlit's shift toward modernism. Such writers as Michael Ondaatje, Robert Kroetsch, and (especially) George Bowering acknowledge the book's influence on them.
As Watson later reported, the idea for the book came to her through disembodied voices on a Toronto street. She wrote and rewrote the manuscript for years. "Sheila liked to preface her account of the voices on Bloor Street with T.S. Eliot's claim that a poem can originate in a rhythm as well as in an image, an incident, or an idea," writes F.T. Flahiff in Always Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson.
Flahiff and Watson were best friends for more than 40 years, though he was her junior by 24. Toward the end of her life (she died in 1998, age 89), she sent him her private papers, including a journal she had kept during a year in France in the 1950s, and she urged him to write the story of her life. Smack in the middle of his book, Flahiff reprints 70 pages of her jottings, wrecking his narrative flow yet showing at once the anguish she suffered over her husband's infidelity-and also the intense grace of her style: "The French have no respect for birds-perhaps they wear too many feather hats. I saw a dead lark lying on a nest of artificial eggs in one of the confiseur's windows."
A biography of Watson is no easy task. She was a teacher almost all her adult life, in her native B.C. and elsewhere, and she didn't interact much with other writers. And it's a telling fact that she gave her first public reading from The Double Hook 15 years after its publication. As far as biographical potential goes, hers was a life almost completely lacking in external incident. Everything took place in her head. Only Watson's most loyal fans will be properly thankful to Flahiff.