Girl Unwrapped
by Gabriella Goliger

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-551-52375-0.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 05/17/2011

Fiction: Multi-Cultural

Girl Unwrapped is a finely-crafted coming-of-age story set in 1960s Montreal. Gabriella Goliger's compelling and courageous novel tells the story of Toni Goldblatt, the child of parents affected by the Holocaust.

From the first page, Goliger skillfully describes the restrictions imposed on Toni, growing up as an only child with her Holocaust-scarred parents, Lisa and Julius. It's almost as if there is no breathing room.

Toni is nine years old in Part I of the novel, The Mountain, when her parents' hostility worsens as they argue about how they got to Canada. Toni is cornered in her bedroom by her mother who explains her version of the story. When her mother is in the bathroom, her father takes his opportunity to explain to Toni "what really happened." Goliger has created convincing and powerful characters in situations that are described with expertise.

In Part II, Toni, at the age of thirteen-and-a-half, is a "beanstalk, long, gangly, big-footed..." At Camp Tikvah, a Jewish summer camp, she has a chance encounter with camp counselor, Janet Bloom, on the shores of Lac Sainte-Cecile, and experiences an attraction she's never felt before. "She is lost yet knows exactly where she is." It's a beautiful scene, poignantly told.

When Toni's mother picks her up at camp, Toni tells her she's a lesbian. Lisa remembers lesbians as "sadists" and "she-devils." After making a spitting sound, Lisa says: "The Nazis selected them to be guards in the camps because they could be counted on to act like beasts. You have nothing whatever in common with those monsters. You will put such worries out of your head, do you hear?"

Thus far, Toni has been surrounded by homophobic remarks, an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience at camp, and her mother's prejudice. Toni does her own research into the dictionary definition of lesbian, and by having a look at books by Sigmund Freud on her father's bookshelf. She has thoughts of how people kill themselves but thankfully has a flash of insight about another sort of transformation: she'll become a "proper egghead." She'll be "so brilliant she becomes untouchable and is catapulted onto another plane."

In Part III, Toni, in the wake of the 1967 Middle East crisis, travels to Israel with a "new-found Zionist fervour." She attends classes at Hebrew University in Jerusalem where her lectures are almost entirely in Hebrew.

In Part IV, back in Montreal, Toni, through a chance remark, discovers the underground lesbian bar scene. She feels she didn't fit in while in Israel; but, at a lesbian club called Loulou's Lounge, she finds kindred spirits. The club becomes "her beacon through the long, grey week."

In the last part of the book, Toni is attending university in Montreal where campus talks are given by visiting feminists and fellow female students, met at Loulou's, who wear beret buttons that proclaim: "Sappho was a right-on woman." Toni wears her own invisible "badges of honour" as she gets to talk about the misery of high school and the "stories of pain and loneliness."

In a final act of independence, Toni moves away from home into a bachelor apartment in the heart of Montreal. When last seen, Toni has squared shoulders and is striding along the street with a feeling of acceptance and belonging.

While I can remember reading lesbian coming-out stories and lesbian characters created by May Sarton and Rita Mae Brown for instance, I can't remember any lesbian coming-of-age stories. That makes Girl Unwrapped especially vital and timely.

Gabriella Goliger's first book, Song of Ascent, won the 2001 Upper Canada Writer's Craft Award. Her work has been published in a number of journals and anthologies including Best New American Voices 2000 and Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada. Goliger has been involved in the Canadian Jewish peace movement for 25 years and is currently co-chair of the Ottawa chapter of Canadian Friends of Peace Now. Visit her website.

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