The story opens in a supermarket with Mum (Belinda) and Squid (Sebastian) and Grace (our narrator) shopping on the only occasion on which Mum tried spanking Squid. She had let him out of the shopping cart and he’d begun punching the cereal boxes on the bottom shelf. “So he was punching, punching away, and every box he could reach was getting a punch, Squid made sure of that. ” While Grace and Mum argue about generic brands and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Squid stops punching, sticks his hand in his diaper”and got it all covered in – goo. Shit. This mustardy-brown, pasty kind of shit.” A chase begins and when Mum catches Squid by the collar and “reeled him in” that was when Grace saw that “she looked like she was about to cry.” And, “that was when Mum spanked him.”
Squid’s reaction? “It was hilarious. A perfect oval, aimed right at Mum’s snarling face. And then he laughed, gleefully, like one of those evil Chucky dolls from the horror movies. Ran down the aisle, feet going so fast his wobbling body could barely keep up. He disappeared around the corner, Mum trudging behind him.”
Turns out that Grace had fed Squid some Heinz creamed corn and her Mum says “You know the Heinz ones give him diarrhea.” And so we learn that Grace does a fair amount of caring for her brother Squid and her Mum expects her to do it as well as any other mother.
“It was the first time I (Grace) knew – really knew – I was alone. Me, separate from Squid and Mum. Mum drove home like a zombie…I watched a few raindrops river down the window and imagined us underwater, all separate, in our own little bathyspheres, roving around the deep ocean. We were trapped inside, looking for the same route to the surface.”
The image is very apt in that Grace wants to be a marine biologist and often imagines being eaten by a squid. She also thinks that people are threatened by squid because they look so different from us but she thinks it is only because we don’t understand them that we fear them. She seems to be applying this to her brother.
The other members of the family, besides Squid, Grace and their mother Belinda are Jess, Grace’s older sister and Wiley, Squid’s father and Grace and Jess’ step-father. Grace and Jess’ father whom they call Da and for whom we are given the name Dazhong. There are a number of minor characters, friends, classmates, bus drivers, academics Belinda meets etc. Alternate chapters (some with titles some without) give Grace’s and Belinda’s versions of their worlds.
Early in the narrative, Belinda leaves her home and family and goes on a trip to Wiltshire, England where she was born. “Belinda had left her mother’s home when she was seventeen, and she’d never looked back…. she’d learned everything she knew about caring for herself the hard way, and yet she never felt any desire to return to her mother’s. She’d long ago lost any desire to even think about her mother.” However, her mother still sent Christmas gifts and $150 every year. She kept the money, hidden away, so she could pretend that “ties had been severed.”
“Belinda had spent over two years researching crop circle and related phenomena, from their earliest recorded history to the present day.” She “trusted crop circles for their shape. A circle seemed natural, an instinct.” “She could never, would never believe in reducing relationships to mathematical patterns. A circle was a circle, no beginning and no end. She needed to believe that life was unmappable.”
“Concentricity. She’d been as moved by the images of the Hubble as she’d been by the first images she’d seen of crop circles. Then there was the UFO sighting. And the coincidences kept multiplying and circling back to each other the more Belinda thought about them. They were all signs, radiating from the same centre. She wore her coincidences like rings, all on one finger. They travelled with her wherever she went, and each was just as important as the rest.”
And so Grace continues to mother Squid and Jess continues to bake and be a perfect “Mum” while Wiley manifests two rather different personality types. This is a story rich in characterization, told in entertaining and realistic dialogue, and with which the reader can identify in many instances. It is a mother-daughter journey during which the daughter comes of age and gains wisdom and a recognition of her bond with her mother whose search for a route to the surface is often confusing for her children as well as for herself.
This novel is written by Corinna Chong, born in Calgary and who is a writer, editor, and graphic designer working in Kelowna, B.C. She currently teaches English literature at Okanagan College.
Here is what Mark Anthony Jarman writes about her novel:
“Belinda’s Rings is about childhood and adolescence and sisters and mothers and piano lessons, but it’s also about UFOs and mysterious squids and stunningly beautiful crop circles near Stonehenge. The writing has a mesmerizing grace and an Atwoodian fascination with science and swirling fratals and deep sea divers and puzzling family bonds. Belinda’s Rings is a vital, vibrant gem.”