Review: She Who Burns by Myrl Coulter

She Who Burns by Myrl Coulter
FriesenPress (2023)

My Quick Take: An interesting mix of historical fiction and present-day family drama, this novel presents a story of intergenerational trauma and healing against a backdrop of the intuitive art of the Tarot.

This article was originally published in The British Columbia Review on December 10, 2023.


I like it when a book surprises me. The story seems to steer me in one direction, then, mentally sitting up a little straighter, I’m asked to give new attention to what’s happening on the page.

Such was the case with Kelowna-based Myrl Coulter’s debut novel She Who Burns.

The story follows six generations of women whose lives are intertwined through both family bonds and intergenerational trauma. Coulter (The Left-Handed Dinner Party and Other Stories) introduces the Tarot as an additional touchstone that connects them.

Each of the book’s chapters is prefaced by one of the 22 Major Arcana, beginning with The Fool. I love this description, as we set out at the beginning:

The Fool is not foolish,
merely a curious seeker
at the outset of a journey.
Vulnerable and possibly naïve,
this optimistic explorer
stands bravely on the precipice,
prepared for a daunting trek, eager for
whatever comes next.

Is this optimism misplaced? The book starts with a violent assault in the 1990s, then follows that with another, older trauma that will echo through the years.

Coulter’s beginning is not for the faint of heart. Wanda Justice is seventeen and meets up with her boyfriend Stoney in an Alberta town one warm September evening. They walk to an abandoned church in the woods, a sacred site that becomes the setting for a profane sexual assault perpetrated by three young men. I had a palpable sense of foreboding, and then shock at the callousness of these boys, which is heightened by the matter-of-factness of Coulter’s writing. There is no hiding the facts in this stark prose.

In an impulsive act fuelled by a matchbook, discarded candles, and rage, Wanda burns the church:
The night had turned cold. Shivering, she slumped between two tombstones and stared at the ground, trying to catch her breath. Then the church windows exploded, and the old building ignited like a torch. Soon huge orange spikes leapt into the black sky, their hot hunger engulfing the cross. The most beautiful sight Wanda had ever seen.
Soon we’re swept back to 1916 on a Scottish farm where young Sheena is adopted by a taciturn, childless couple, and enjoys a comfortable if isolated life. Again there’s an assault, and Sheena births Sadie, Wanda’s great-grandmother. After her mother dies, the teenaged Sadie must flee to London under the threat of sexual violence at the hand of her mother’s abuser. There is another fire in the night, a symbol of female rage in response to powerlessness.

With the opening chapters so full of violence, violation and fire, I expected more of the same. The narrative was a potential minefield of trauma and I read with a sense of fearful dread, certain that something terrible was going to happen at any minute. Take this passage, as Wanda is shuffling her Tarot deck and The Tower falls out:
…bolts of lightning striking a medieval tower, flames roaring out its windows, two falling bodies flailing against a dark sky. She stuffed it back into the deck, wiped her hands on a tea towel, and pulled another card. The Tower again. From somewhere inside her head, she heard these words: Something’s coming.
Indeed, difficulties arise but most of the doom I predicted didn’t materialize. For instance, when Wanda meets Isaac, an older man who persistently courts her, I sensed danger. I wanted to warn her off!
Author Myrl Coutler

But Coulter often chooses differently for her characters. Isaac is a flawed man, but in a more mundane sense. She Who Burns was a much kinder novel than I expected, filled with more realism than shock, more evenhandedness than blame. As I said, it surprised me. Wanda’s trauma is a sleeping beast that occasionally wakes, but for the most part, she–like many of us–faces the more quotidian frustrations and betrayals of daily life.

The second timeline is Sadie’s, through the mid-20th century. She’s moved to London, where she meets two inspiring women. Helen gives her a roof, a job, and mentorship; and Cassandra introduces her to the Tarot. There is love, laughter, and tragedy, and Sadie lands on Saskatchewan’s prairie as a war bride. Sadie is a dynamic, enjoyable, and positive character whose life has been touched by many traumas, though not assault. She keeps her mother Sheena’s history of abuse a secret, feeling that it is not her story to tell.

Coulter’s pacing is very quick; years pass in a chapter, conveying life’s fleeting passage. I occasionally longed for Coulter to pause and ponder some of the key relationships more deeply. Wanda’s relationships with her partner Isaac and daughter Janey don’t receive a lot of attention, and it might have been intriguing to explore how Wanda’s trauma coloured connections with them to deepen the emotional impact of the book.

But perhaps the pacing served a purpose, too, because as the years slip by we, like Wanda, are lulled into an easier story as the acute trauma fades from the everyday. And all the more horrible when we’re suddenly jerked out of complacency, like a slap in the face.

Wanda, now in her mid-30s and having arrived at an uneasy peace with the vagaries of life, comes face to face with her abusers. Time has not mellowed their vitriol, and it has not softened her own fear and shame. After a confrontation that had my heart pounding as I read, Wanda’s trauma is unearthed:
Wanda dreamed blurry images of beefy men looming over her. After twisting the bed into a mass of tossed sheets, she tried curling into a fetal position, but her legs would not settle. No part of her body could find stillness. Her skin itched from her ankles to her neck. Her ears burned and her lungs craved air they couldn’t process. She wanted to burn something.
Wanda makes choices in this situation that I found myself debating. I longed for her to confront these men, or to tell her truth to the authorities. But here’s the crux of the matter: She’d tried telling her ex-husband about an assault by a boss years ago and had been dismissed.

The radio blares with stories of privileged male athletes getting away with assault; and of “the famous talk-radio host who liked to play rough. It was obvious how that was going to turn out; the roughed-up girls were roughed up again in the courtroom.” Faced with this reality, I had to affirm Wanda’s right to process her trauma in the way she saw fit. What choices might any one of us make in this situation?

In the end, there is reckoning and truth-telling. Wanda finds the words to relate her story of trauma to those she trusts: “For so many years, she hadn’t known how to tell her story, hadn’t known what words to use. But now the words had come. Simple words. Straightforward. As it happened.” Great-grandmother Sadie, who has held the secrets of Sheena for a lifetime, also shares, voicing powerful words:
My life has been longer than most and this is what I’ve learned along the way. The world has demanded that women remain silent about the vile things that happen to us. We recover from the physical wounds, but it’s silence that kills our spirit. The only way things will change is if we tell our stories.
A description from the Tarot’s Justice card is apt: “Rooted in honesty and compassion, this card advises considerable thought, not knee-jerk reactions. This card knows that we move beyond our pasts only when we understand where and what we came from.”

Coulter has meted out a thoughtful narrative that avoids hyperbole and instead offers an attempt at a just response to violence rather than untamed retribution. By showing us Wanda and Sadie’s lived experience over so many decades, we can sit with their suffering, understanding that the way to justice is not always a straight path.

The World is the last card in the Major Arcana, and the last chapter of the book. It is a celebratory card marking the end of a journey. Life always proceeds apace, however; when one journey ends, another begins:

The World reminds us that
nothing ever really ends,
all is never truly revealed.
And the Fool will soon show up again,
ready to set out anew.