The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.

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In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)

The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.

Incident Report 61

A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)

Incident Report 9

At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)

Incident Report 67

At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)

As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.

It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.

I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)

When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).

Incident Report 44

At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.

“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”

I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)

The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.

Incident Report 55

Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)

In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.

Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.

One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.

I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.

53 thoughts on “The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, an unusual approach, but it works surprisingly well. Not a book I’ve ever seen in the bookshops over here, so you might have to look online if it takes your fancy. :)

      Reply
  1. MarinaSofia

    That’s an interesting comparison you make with the Jenny Offill book, which also proved unsatisfactory to me (although it had its flashes of brilliance). I kept wondering why I felt it didn’t hang together, when Valeria Luiselli and Clarice Lispector do work for me in all of their fragmentation. I think this kind of book requires an even tighter control of the subject matter, othewise it looks saggy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m with you on the need for a high degree of control over the material, otherwise all the elements can end up feeling too sporadic or disconnected. The voice is critical too. I think that’s why I warmed to this book (and Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd) but not the Offill (or not so much anyway). I wasn’t particularly keen on the narrative voice in Dept., plus I found certain elements a bit too knowing or arch for my tastes. Lispector I’m a bit undecided about at this stage – I suspect I need to read another of her books to get a better view. I wasn’t blown away by Near to the Wild Heart, so the jury’s out for me right now!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. I genuinely think you’d like this one. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have come across as feeling rather gimmicky, but Baillie keeps it together. You might have to hunt around for a copy online. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in the shops over here, but reasonably priced secondhand copies are available online. Alternatively, there’s always the library!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali – I think you’d like it. I haven’t been reading very many contemporary novels lately, but I’m glad I discovered this one.

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    I think a fragmented style can work very well but as Marina says, it needs to be tightly controlled. As I was reading your review I wondered if Baillie had ever worked as a librarian.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she has. I couldn’t remember if I’d mentioned it in my review, but Baillie works part-time for the Toronto Public Library. There’s a link to her website and bio here:

      http://marthabaillie.ca/?page_id=2

      Her library experience shows in the book, particularly in the little details in several of the vignettes. As you might recall, I’ve being doing some voluntary work with our local community library here in the town, so that’s one of the reasons why this book appealed to me in the first place.

      Reply
  3. Col

    Reading review it reminds me a wee bit of the Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry – it had that same ‘reveal’ about the librarian bit by bit though it used a monologue with a stranger who’s been sleeping all night in the library rather than library incident forms. I really enjoyed it and like sound of this too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I recall seeing that book on display in quite a few bookshops a couple of years ago. It had a lovely cover, if my memory serves me well – quite quirky and colourful in an appealing way. It does sound as though there are some parallels between the two, so I shall have to look out for it. Thanks, Col. Did you review it by any chance?

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    This sounds creative,

    I tend to like fiction when it is broken into letters, diary entries etc. When an author is able to tie this type of style to character development it adds to the appeal for me. Thr fact that this is set in a library is even better.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s one of the things that works so well here, the gradual reveal of information about Miriam and her backstory. Otherwise it might have felt a bit thin. The setting is great too. Speaking as a book lover, it’s hard to resist a story that takes place in a library, especially one as inventive as this.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. That’s great. I doubt whether it’s very well known over here in the UK, so I’m hoping my piece might tempt one or two other readers to seek it out. I remember seeing positive reports about the Divry when it came out a couple years ago. Glad to hear you enjoyed it – one for me to bear in mind. :)

      Reply
  5. Naomi

    Yes, discovering new books and authors is one of the best parts about book blogging. In this case, you’ve introduced me to a book and author from my own country that I didn’t know about! Thank you!! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great, Naomi – happy to be of service! I’m glad you dropped by as I was thinking of you as I was writing my review. Hope you get an opportunity to explore Baillie’s work in the future as I would love to hear you perspective on it. The Incident Report was longlisted for the Giller Prize when it came out in 2009.

      You might have seen it upstream in my review to Susan, but if not here’s a link to her website which looks pretty cool:

      http://marthabaillie.ca/

      Reply
      1. Naomi

        After reading your review, I went over to GR and realized that I had one of her other books marked to read – I guess you can’t remember them all! That’s what GR is for, right? :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah! I’ll be curious to hear more about that as and when you get around to it.

          I’m still feeling my way around GoodReads at the mo. We’re in the process of setting up a group area withing GR for the Jean Rhys Reading Week, just for readers who like to communicate/chat within the GR platform – more info to follow in August. :)

          Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        Wanking in public. Walking naked in library. exposing themselves in library. Pooping on bathroom floor. locking themselves in bathroom stalls and refusing to come out. etc

        Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Yikes. Happy to say I haven’t encountered any of that during my (albeit limited) experience of volunteering at the local library over here.

            Funnily enough, there is one very creepy guy in Baillie’s book, a possible stalker who keeps leaving weird notes for Miriam in strange places in the library. I don’t want to say too much about it as it’s a short book, but it’s not a million miles away from the type of behaviour you mention…

            Reply
  6. Rebecca Foster

    Library incident reports! That’s very familiar from my days of working in a university library in London. I really must get hold of this book. The structure sounds similar to the delightful Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, composed entirely of letters of recommendation. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I’m sure you would appreciate it, especially given your experience of working in a uni library in the city. (I’ve helped out with a few sessions at our local community library, so I could relate to some of the ‘incidents’ in Baillie’s book, especially the minor squabbles over using the computers!) One of the joys of this book is in the way she uses the incident report idea to spin out into other areas of her life, many of which have little to do with the library. It’s very cleverly done.

      I’m not familiar with the Schumacher but will take a look. Thanks for mentioning it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great, Cathy. Good idea to try to seek it out for Novella Nov. Every self-respecting library network should have a copy of this book!

      Reply
      1. Poppy Peacock

        Haha… my thoughts exactly and justification to buying this one straight away – be rude not to! #NovellaNov Love the promise of both premise & structure😊

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Exactly! I think you’d love it, Poppy. A good one to showcase during your #NovellaNov event. The structure is fascinating. It could have come across as feeling too gimmicky, but that’s not the case at all. In Baillie’s hands, it works really well. :)

          Reply
  7. Caroline

    I don’t think I saw Max’s review. While I was reading your review I thought of Offill, then I saw you were reminded of her book. It seems you liked this one better though. I could imagine it’s a book for me as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s a very good chance you’d like it, Caroline. I much preferred this to the Offill, which I quite liked in parts but not overall. I just think Baillie’s book hangs together as a whole, more so than Dept. for me. The narrative voice is very engaging here, at least that how it comes across to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it though, especially given your liking for Dept. I remember you likening it to flash fiction, which is a good way of thinking of it.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I did like it but like Max – I think he reviewed it too – I forgot everything about it by now. Never a good sign in my opinion. This one sounds like it’s more memorable.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I can barely remember anything about the Offill either. It’ll be interesting to see how The Incident Report settles in my memory in say six months time. I’m hoping it will hold up a lot better than Dept.

          Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I’m glad you liked it, and thanks for the callback. I actually preferred this to the Offill. Baillie’s character is somehow more vulnerable, more sympathetic, and while the book’s more artificial in some ways it yet feels more natural.

    I did review the Offill. I think I called it the best book I’d read that I couldn’t remember anything about. It’s beautifully written, but it falls apart in memory leaving nothing much behind. I think that counts against it. Caroline’s right that it’s never a good sign. This by contrast comes flooding back reading your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and thanks so much for putting me on to it in the first place. I’m hoping that a few more readers might go on to read it in the future – Ali’s already bought a copy, so there’s a good chain the sequence of reviews will continue.

      Yes, I’m with you on the feel of this one. I think that’s why I warmed to the rather poetic lines in this book — the passage about Janko’s skin, for instance — as they just felt more natural here than in the Offill. Not forced or pretentious in any way (which was one of the problems I had with Dept.). Plus I’m a sucker for a vulnerable, wounded character like Miriam, and the melancholy tone of the novella matched her personality perfectly.

      Re the staying power of these books, I recall your snowflake analogy for Dept. (very apt, btw). I’m hoping the Baillie will fare better in my memory; I have a feeling it will somehow.

      **********Possible Spoilers**********

      Back to The Incident Report. When I re-read your review after my piece went live, I noticed that you were unsure about the need for the sucker punch towards the end. Difficult to discuss in detail without revealing too much, but that pulled me up short as well. I could see why Baillie went down that route, but it did leave me feeling desperately sad for Miriam. Equally, I think I can understand why you considered it a potentially unnecessary development. Miriam already had my sympathy well before that point in the story, which just made the impact of that ending all the more heartbreaking.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        I felt exactly the same way. I hadn’t been expecting the turn mid-way through the book (the romance) and, then, I felt slapped by the further development. Honestly, the details of the latter event have completely left me (I read Baillie’s book shortly after it was published IIRC) but I do remember feeling the blow of it and, as much as I loved the rest of the book, I knew immediately that I would have to wait a long time to even consider rereading it. However, I think that the later parts of the novel are also what move it towards “unforgettable”. And that’s a good thing!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a really interesting point about the second half of the book being so influential in making it a memorable piece of writing. I’m with you on that as it enhances the emotional element, the sense of humanity in Miriam’s story. The incident towards end comes out of nowhere as these things sometimes do in life – quite a shock in many ways.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad you like the quotes, Seamus. The writing is all important in a book like this, and it really works here. I read it over a leisurely afternoon, so it won’t take up too much of your reading time. :)

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Melwyk

    Oh, I loved this book too, but felt the same way about the ending as Buriedinprint did. When I read Offill’s book I did think back to this one. Another Canadian novel that I absolutely love that also reminds me of the structure of both of these is When I Was Young and In My Prime by Alayna Munce. Hard to find but worth it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The ending is pretty devastating, isn’t it? I’m not familiar with the Alayna Munce, but will certainly look it up. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Reply

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