Late in the writing of her debut novel, Our Animal Hearts, Dania Tomlinson happened upon the Mabinogion, the historic text from Britain’s Middle Ages. Full of myth and legend, it resonated with her own work in progress, which was a magic-realist tale set in the early-20th-century Okanagan.
Parallels between the manuscripts unnerved Tomlinson. This sense of the supernatural at play, however, inspired her to further explore an imagined past for the area where she was raised.
Unfolding the life of Iris Sparks, daughter of an English blue blood and a Welsh bohemian, the new novel follows Iris from youth, surrounded by spirits in the fictional Okanagan town of Winteridge, into middle age, as external forces grip the world. Tomlinson was originally interested in writing about the link between experience and narrative but her novel, she notes, has “changed forms as I have taken on new roles. I’ve been writing it for about 10 years. I became a university student, an adult, a wife, a mom—all while writing this book.
“I think my ideas in the story have really shifted,” she adds, speaking to the Straight from her Kelowna home, “and then adapted as I have changed.”
The impact of storytelling is crucial here as Iris uses her mother’s fables to frame the everyday. Tomlinson, whose grandmother arrived in Canada from Wales in the 1930s, wanted to address how the Indigenous population and settlers from Wales, Japan, and Scotland might project personal and cultural mores onto Lake Okanagan.
The perspectives of newcomers “really became quite interesting for me,” she says. “How much of this is just projecting? It’s also a kind of colonialism—going somewhere new and projecting something of your own.”
The novel grew out of a short story she wrote about two elderly women who loathed each other, and it initially took place in Chile and Victoria. (This South American plot was ultimately cut, though its protagonist briefly appears in the finished book in the form of a young maid.)
Choosing the Okanagan came after research led Tomlinson to “a photo of some women, wearing trousers, in an apple orchard with ladders. The write-up at the bottom was ‘Women taking to the ladders. All the men are at war.’ And it was dated during World War I.
“I don’t know what it was about that photo,” she says, “but I looked at that photo and imagined the lives of these women taking on a role that they were quite unfamiliar with, and how their worlds must have changed.”
In the novel, Iris finds her objectives shift once her father and brother leave for England, eventually joining the Allied forces, and her mother’s health deteriorates back in Winteridge. Unease encroaches on Iris, reflecting her path from adolescence to adulthood, and larger concerns from the era.
It is no boon that she “tends to follow a very selfish part of herself that destroys things around her”. Fostering an adversarial relationship with Azami, a Japanese-Canadian whose family has ties to the Sparkses, Iris also embroils herself in a love triangle with Viktor and Yuri, brothers of Ukrainian heritage who toil in the Sparkses’ orchard.
These threads allowed Tomlinson to broach global events and national injustices, including the internment of ethnic communities during the world wars, and the theft of Indigenous land. Winteridge, she remarks, “soon became a microcosm of Canadian history. Looking at the story through a micro lens—or a macro lens—changes what the story’s about. It was really important to me that all these historical scars were laid bare.”
Writing, for Tomlinson, begins with images often unconnected to a greater whole. The process is one of discovery and develops over time.
The assuredness of Tomlinson’s prose supports the novel’s sweep and sensibility. She writes with equal confidence about the struggles of the period, the human condition, and the natural world.
“We are beasts, crude and cruel, but aglow, nonetheless, aflame with something so brilliant it cannot be seen,” she observes in Our Animal Hearts. “It cannot be known or ever understood.”
This idea, the title suggests, fuels the novel. According to Tomlinson, people “can act beastly and I think that amidst those actions we still have spirit. We still have something more. That’s the mystery of it.…It’s just a matter of how we choose what we choose to take on in that moment. What we choose to acknowledge within ourselves.”