Mairuth Sarsfield approaches her first novel, No Crystal Stair with the similar energetic ambition and eagerness she has used to tackle her career – it would be more than decent to make such features as a basis for a CV template. Born in Quebec in 1930, Sarsfield worked as an information officer for External Affairs before moving, in the early '80s, to New York, to become deputy director of the UN's environment program. In No Crystal Stair, however, the author's customary zealousness taxes her nascent abilities as she attempts to weave a diverse array of themes and plots into a complex historical setting. The story offers a fictionalized account of Little Burgundy, the black community in Montreal, where Sarsfield grew up. Set during the economically restrained years of the Second World War, No Crystal Stair follows the travails of Marian Willow, a widow who struggles to instill her two daughters with pride in their African heritage. Like most of the black Canadian women of the era, Marian works as a domestic; in the mornings she keeps house for a separatist female lawyer and in the afternoons she hastens over to the local YMCA where she cleans rooms alongside a number of close friends. Marian's main dilemma concerns whether or not she should marry Edmond Thompson, a handsome railway porter. Edmond's staid, sober nature and the fact he keeps a glamorous mistress, causes Marian to repeatedly defer. Edmond and his nephew Otis, also a porter, work to organize a union that would improve conditions for black men on the Canadian railway.
Sarsfield means for the triangle of Marian, Edmond and Torrie, Edward's lover, to comprise the novel's most compelling conflict. But she compromises the women's authenticity by basing them on anachronistic stereotypes. Despite Marian's status as a widow, Sarsfield casts her as the virginal ingénue, who with her fair-skinned desirability rather insidiously summons images of the nineteenth-century mulatto figure. Torrie, on the other hand, plays the role of carnal, worldly woman whose sexual sophistication makes her morally suspect. Although Sarsfield overextends herself by creating too many extraneous storylines, her secondary characters much better manifest her imaginative gifts, particularly the Willow's neighbors, the former Russian consort Dame Orlova Braithwaite and her mixed-race teenage daughter Marushka.
Disappointingly, Sarsfield fails to develop the novel's deeper metaphorical possibilities. No Crystal Stair, the title of a Langston Hughes poem, signifies the racial impediments that hinder a black person's journey through life. Yet Sarsfield hardly begins to explore the motifs rich potential. She does attempt to build the railway, which barrels through the community, into a symbol of oppression, but the metaphor evolves fitfully and without much grace. Sarsfield aims to tell an enduring story about black Canadians in which the dilemma of racism exists but does not entirely dominate, as it tends to do in "serious" black literature. The problem is that it is difficult to dramatize the unpleasantness of racism with the same voice that one might use to narrate Little Women. The irony is a quality that seems to elude Sarsfield altogether, and for a writer hoping to communicate the complexity of the black experience, such artlessness amounts to a fatal flaw.