The twelfth book from Governor General’s Award-winning author Diane Schoemperlen, This is Not My Life is a candid examination of one of the author’s less successful relationships. Often frustratingly relatable, This is Not My Life chronicles the stages of love between Diane and Shane from cute, flirty, and awash in butterflying stomachs all the way through rough, manipulative, and downright abusive. The couple meet while volunteering at a local Kingstonian soup kitchen called Vinnie’s, where the mantra Don’t judge. Don’t assume. is drilled into the heads of everyone washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or sorting through the basement full of donations. As Schoemperlen herself wonders, perhaps it was this mantra that let her put aside any misgivings she would normally have about beginning a relationship with Shane. Her apprehension might have been more pronounced: at the time of their meeting, Shane had already been in prison for 30 years for robbery and second-degree murder.
The most obvious reaction is what are you thinking? and Schoemperlen knows this. It was her own reaction to falling in love with a convict. She takes us through the steps of her decision-making process and by the end of it, we’re thinking oh..yeah..okay. Schoemperlen’s writing is incredibly self-reflective and self-aware. She expertly re-tells the story of her relationship without glossing over the bad stuff. In fact, she makes little to no effort to make us even like Shane or understand why she likes him. Or if she does, I just didn’t see it.
So while I may not understand why Diane and Shane get together, I do understand that she loves him as fully and completely as she can. And why not? He’s a kind man, a gentle man, determined to read every book on her massive bookshelf. Who wouldn’t succumb to the sweet promises of hand-written letters? The soup kitchen banter? The perfectly straight, white teeth?
“By the miraculous power of adaptation, we humans are masters of the ability to get used to almost anything, for better or for worse, at once a blessing and a curse, both our salvation and our undoing.”
As it turns out, the teeth, much like most of Shane’s promises, turn out to be false. The reality is much more grim and difficult to navigate as evidenced by the couple’s first sexual encounter on the fold-out sofa bed in the living room of Shane’s mother’s tiny home with his mother’s bedroom door wide open, and Shane’s teeth soaking in bleach in the kitchen.
At its core, This is Not My Life is the story of an emotionally abusive relationship that is no different from any other abusive relationship except that the man involved happens to be a convicted killer. Diane never displays fear for her safety any more than any woman is afraid in the face of a man’s erratic behaviour. The novel actually comes out as a wonderful guide for what not to do and finally what to do when someone is treating you badly. I wish I had read it years ago.
The backdrop of Diane and Shane’s romance is Correctional Service Canada. Through Diane, we learn about how the service works: the levels of security, visitation, parole, passes, all the stuff necessary for a woman in love with a prisoner to master in order to succeed in a relationship, which includes understanding the psychological effects of long-term incarceration and institutionalization. These effects are only worsened by the “tough on crime” stance held by the Harper government that gains power over the course of Diane and Shane’s involvement.
This is Not My Life is a look at the ways stigma, incarceration, and plain bad habits can affect a relationship. Diane finds her strength and encourages the reader to find their own as she stops living under other people’s expectations and finds a life she is proud to call her own.