Dianne Warren’s most recent novel The Diamond House is quietly addictive. Her portrayal of an entrepreneurial, working-class family in Saskatchewan is deliciously compelling and uncannily realistic, particularly if you’re from the prairie province. Reading The Diamond House is like flipping through an old photo album. Warren captures the dynamics between fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, as well as the generational divide between family members born eighty years apart so persuasively that it’s easy for the reader to fall under the spell of nostalgia.
Warren’s novel centers on the life of Estella Diamond, the only girl born to businessman and brick factory owner Oliver Diamond. Among her many brothers and her larger-than-life father, Estella wrestles with how to be an independent woman in a male-dominated world. Her formative models are her mother, Beatrice, for whom decorum and politeness are paramount, and her father’s first wife, Salina, a woman Estella has never met, except through a series of surreptitiously read letters, but whose “rebellious legacy” holds a deep mystique. Time and time again, throughout the entirety of her ninety-plus years, Estella yearns to be as carefree and uninhibited as Salina. She balks against stereotypical expectations of her time and often, without even realizing, succeeds at defying convention. Nevertheless, Estella is a product of her generation and more frequently than not she is forced to live within the constraints of what is expected of a twentieth-century woman. While the men in her life are able to imagine and realize a life of adventure and enterprise on the western frontier, Estella’s dreams are regularly circumvented for that of duty. She hides herself in every way: physically, professionally, even romantically, constantly weighing what is proper against what is not. As such Warren deftly examines how outside forces of repression are often insidiously internalized. Estella is a woman divided, lusting after a life of excitement and spontaneity—a life freely afforded to her father and brothers—while torn between duty to family and conventional expectation. Despite these frustrations, or perhaps because of them, Estella is a bold and sassy character who is delightfully relatable and hauntingly familiar.
Unlike so many prairie narratives, The Diamond House considers the emergence of business in the west rather than its agricultural identity. From the construction of a brick manufacturing factory in the south to the expansion of tourism in the north, Warren depicts a burgeoning Saskatchewan full of enticement and prosperity for adventurous young entrepreneurs. While the author doesn’t delve heartily into the colonial realities that accompanied such development, she doesn’t whitewash it either. Warren thoughtfully depicts the history of a province through the lens of a woman born within a particular time and context.
The tone of the novel is often languid, reflecting the pace and feel of each time period accordingly. Opening in the earliest years of the twentieth century, the inclusion of epistolary prose transports the reader to another time, seamlessly conveying the manners of speech and social mores of the early nineteen-hundreds. Likewise, Warren flawlessly moves the reader through time by referencing popular clothing patterns and car models of the early nineteen sixties. The introduction of cell phones brings the reader past the new millennium and into the present. Occasionally, the reader might pause to question whether a five-year-old character could plausibly read a cursively-written letter well enough to understand the nuance of courtship, no matter how gifted. And later, one might stop to wonder if a present-day ten-year-old wouldn’t be more likely to write an e-mail rather than an old-fashioned letter. But these minor question marks quickly dissolve in the warmth of Warren’s elegant prose. Her writing is much like Saskatchewan itself: understated and unassuming, yet expansively beautiful. Each sentence invites the reader to savour the moment. You can almost feel the cold northern Saskatchewan lake water prickle your skin, the smell of algae lifting off the page as you read.
There isn’t one particular harrowing moment on which the novel pivots or hangs. Rather, the novel crests and falls over the course of Estella’s entire lifetime, punctuated by unexpected moments of sporadic significance: a car accident, a messy break-up, the loss of one’s virginity.
In a style that mirrors real life, Warren expertly captures the complexities of a life lived and proves that the small victories and disappointments of everyday existence are more than sufficient material to create a compelling and captivating story.
The Diamond House
by Dianne Warren
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., June 2020, 384 p.p.,
Kate O’Gorman lives and writes on the Saskatchewan prairie. Her stories have appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and RAWSY II.