By Carrie Snyder. Anansi, 364 pp, hardcover
Carrie Snyder’s debut novel, Girl Runner, perhaps without intending to, assists in the deconstruction of the idea that sports-related books are a boys’ club by telling the story of a fictional Olympic runner who is in the threadbare years of a long life. Here in Canada, hockey memoirs, jock tell-alls, and the ever-multiplying single-team examinations, replete with memorabilia and sound bites, are packaged with logos and celebrity forewords; their glistening allure succeeds in reliving old glory year after year and gives former players, media personalities, coaches, and their ilk an outlet to tell their side of sports lore.
Girl Runner tells the story of Aganetha Smart, now 104 years old and, on this particular day, visited by two young strangers who have arranged with her caregivers to take Aganetha out for the afternoon to visit her childhood home. (Aganetha, who is narrating the story from the present, never fully understands why she’s being taken out of her retirement home.)
The narrative jockeys between Aganetha’s younger selves through a series of nearly seamless jumps in time. With fond affection, she reminisces about growing up on a farm before moving to Toronto, where she trained for a spot on the 1928 Olympic roster as a runner in track and field, and later worked as a journalist.
Since the first-person narrative is already so tightly wound up with recurring characters (siblings, coworkers, romantic interests), readers know exactly where she picks up when moving from past to present. Aganetha, who is witty, humorous, sensible, and always extremely lucid, likens the experience of waiting outside her nursing home with her contemporaries in a row of wheelchairs to being “sales items outside a discount store”.
Her new friends add a layer of mystery as well as a contemporary edge to the singular focus of Girl Runner, which is Aganetha telling her life story as well as she can recall it. While Girl Runner is not a sports book by any stretch of the imagination, it subtly touches on the prejudices facing women in sport. That these difficulties took place nearly 100 years ago and still exist in some form today might pique the interest of anyone, male or female, who has triumphed or failed in the sport of their choosing.