Deloume Road, by Matthew Hooton

ARC courtesy Knopf Canada -- click cover for more info

This spring marks the 15th anniversary of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program, a commitment to publish first novels (one to four a year — 2010 has four titles and I hope to get to all of them eventually). The New Face of Fiction got off to a stunning start: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s highly-acclaimed Fall on Your Knees (one of my favorite novels) was part of the inaugural 1996 program. While first novels are a tricky proposition at best, Knopf has introduced Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Dionne Brand and David Macfarlane amongst others, so you would have to say they have a track record.

Matthew Hooton’s Deloume Road is the first of this year’s titles and, for a first novel, it comes with a bit of a reputation. Hooton grew up on Vancouver Island, where the novel is set, but headed off to Bath Spa University for an MA in Creative Writing — the draft of Deloume Road won the inaugural Greene and Heaton prize there for best novel.

The Deloume Road of the title is a dead-end track just north of the Malahat Pass on the interior of the island. A handful of houses and a single stop sign (with the O shot out — the kids amuse themselves by throwing rocks through it) are pretty much all there is to it. Hooton has chosen to tell his story by exploring several parallel tracks.

The first is set in the present with an unnamed narrator who has returned to Deloume Road. From the start, this thread comes with foreboding of past tragedy:

It’s easiest if you sit with me on the road. If you watch the breeze weave through the tops of the Scotch broom. If you ignore the dusty gravel and tar and instead focus on the tangle of wild blackberry vines at your feet. There’s only one berry on the vine and it’s covered with dust from the occasional passing car. In the distance a wookpecker rattles off Morse code.

The dominant narrative theme is set some years in the past and centres on two sub-teen youngsters, Matthew and Josh — with subthemes concerning Matthew’s younger brother, Andy, who is “retarded”. That’s a politically incorrect term but Hooton uses it and there is no way to avoid it. Matthew and Josh carry all the baggage of “friendship” at that age:

Some best friend. He was bigger and stronger than Matthew. He could have fought back but he didn’t want to. Not against Matthew. Or Andy. He wondered if he’d have to walk home without his bike later. He would if had to, but he was pretty sure they’d give it back soon. Matthew needed him. After all, his friend was awfully skinny.

That paragraph is representative of Hooton’s prose in the thread with the young boys — economical and to the point. He may get lyrical when it comes to the surroundings (see the previous excerpt) but he can move his story along.

Another thread concerns Irene, a South Korean who married a Korean Canadian soldier who has recently died in combat. She is pregnant, without a friend in the world and has a mother who wants her to return home. All of Deloume Road is isolated — for Irene (who would prefer to return to her real name of Sue Hwa), the isolation is even more profound.

Another thread concerns the Butcher, a Ukrainian imigrant who tends a pig farm with attached deli. He is trying to save money so that his wife and child can join him (they live near Chernobyl) but his isolation is every bit as profound as Irene/Sue Hwa’s.

Hooton also develops narrative themes around an artist, a dairy farmer, Matthew and Josh’s parents and the family that runs the local junkyard (who also have a son, Miles, but he is excluded from the friendship of the other boys).

And finally there is yet another stream concerning the original Deloume, a surveyor at the end of the nineteenth century when the area was little more than virgin forest and the man responsible for creating this “community”.

You have probably guessed that there is an “event” that ties some of these streams together. It is no spoiler to say there is, but I’ll provide no more indication than that (unless you demand it in comments).

Hooton deserves credit for ambition, if nothing more, in the structure he has chosen. He keeps the sections for each thread relatively short and moves with some ease from one to the other. Still, for this reader at least, eliminating a few of them would have been a wise editing decision — as the novel goes on the author spends more time story-juggling than he does story-telling.

I was reminded often while reading this book of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook (reviewed here) another Canadian novel set in a similar kind of remote community, strung out on an otherwise deserted road. Alas, Deloume Road does suffer in the comparison — although it should be acknowledged that Watson’s novel is a classic in the Canadian canon.

Deloume Road is a worthwhile first novel, but not much more. Hooton does manage to keep his story together, but the complexity does wear. There is every reason to expect better in future work from this novelist — and every author does have to start somewhere.

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13 Responses to “Deloume Road, by Matthew Hooton”

  1. Isabel Says:

    Sounds like a good first novel. I like the prose of the boys.

    So, please tell me. What’s Scotch broom?

  2. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting review, Kevin. It sounds an ambitious novel, particularly with all the “story juggling” you point out. And as much as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I do very much like this one!

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry about the delayed response to comments — as you might have guessed I’ve been a little preoccupied with watching Olympics rather than keeping the blog up to date for the last few days (and next 12 as well, I might add). This was a worthwhile — but perhaps too ambitious — first novel. I like reading first novels and freely admit that I grant the author a bit of slack. That was necessary with this book but I would still recommend it to anyone who is interested in first fiction.

    kimbofo: As for covers, you might want to check out Trevor’s review of Francine Prose’s Goldengrove (you can link off my Blogroll to the Mookse and the Gripes). I found the cover of that one not just similar but equally enticing (well, even more so, since my copy of Hooton was a proof that didn’t have the real cover). And, I suspect for a lot of reader’s, Prose would be a better choice of read.

  4. Kerry Says:

    I like that bit about “every author does have to start somewhere”. Having started this year to read (some) authors’ works in chronological order (as published), I do enjoy watching the growth of the writer as an author. Just as an example, I reviewed Willa Cather’s first published novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which is really probably only worth reading by Cather afficionados. I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point. There are glimpses of the later greatness, but the first work has some fairly serious flaws.

    I see the same growth in the work of David Mitchell with which I am familiar. Of course, the other side of that success curve is, I am sure, much more disheartening. I really have not in the past read through author’s works that way, so have not palpably felt that drop off.

    I am way off topic, but I do think first novels are important, because authors do have to start somewhere and usually that start is far from what could be their best with enough time and support. I hope Hooton finds sufficient quantities of both.

  5. Matt Rader Says:

    Scotch broom is an invasive green weed with yellow flowers. Similar to gorse.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Matt.

  7. Louise Says:

    I just finished attending a reading from this author and was reminded what a connection I had created to the many characters in this story. I actually don’t think that the author spent his time story juggling, rather I believe he did an exceptional job of bringing the pieces and life experiences of the characters together to create an experience for the reader that reminds us that amongst the challenges in life there is beauty, and that life is ever changing.

    I highly recommend this book.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Louise: Glad to hear from someone who really likes the book.

  9. David Dean Says:

    I finished reading this last night and I have to say I really enjoyed it. I’m in agreement with Louise (above) in that I thought Hooton managed to keep all his plates spinning pretty seemlessly – for me his storytelling definitely wins out over any story-juggling. The only sections I thought could possibly have been cut out as they spoiled the flow a bit for me were the 1899 parts about the original Deloume and the present day sections whose hints of something dark that had happened perhaps gave a little too much away (though I’d guessed at the wrong “victim”). I’d have maybe preferred a prologue set in 1899 and a present day epilogue but that’s just nitpicking.

    I didn’t have a problem with Hooton using the word “retarded” as he only ever used it (twice I think) in the Miles Ford sections. That was just how Miles thought of Andy. I suspect ten year old kids today might use, if not that specific word, something equally cruel and politically incorrect. Probably when I was that age (not that many years before the book’s 1991 setting) I would have used a term like that, not knowing any better, so I think Hooton was only using it in that context.

    Whilst I was reading the book I had a look online at some of the reviews it had garnered and came across a 20 questions style interview with Hooton. One thing he was asked was which book(s) he wished he’d written, to which he responded “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, “Cannery Row” by Steinbeck, and “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. I thought that was interesting – I haven’t read the Bradbury (though I am now keen to) but I can definitely see the influence of the other two novels on “Deloume Road”. It also happens that they’re two of my favourite books and “Deloume Road”, whilst not being in quite the same league, engaged me in the same way they did – I really came to love spending time with his characters and in that community and was sorry to leave them when I closed the book.

    So, a very successful first novel that shows Hooton is a writer with a great deal of promise, and one that (for me) sits very comfortably on that New Face of Fiction list, especially alongside authors like David MacFarlane and Mary Lawson.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, David. I hadn’t thought about the prologue/epilogue suggestion that you raise — I agree that would have been a good idea as I too found the 1899 parts to be more a distraction than adding value. And I should also add that some months after reading the book, I do remember a number of the characters more than I remember some of the original shortcomings which I found in the book — a sign that it is indeed a successful debut. I certainly look forward to more from Hooton.

  11. Wandering Coyote Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I also reviewed this one for RH, and I have to agree with you on this one: too many stories, too much juggling. There were things about this I really liked, for instance the author’s attention to detail, but I thought there was way too much going on and some of the resolutions were way too unsatisfying to me.

  12. Kevin DeLoume Says:

    I had heard of this book last year but never DID get around to locating it. Since I have run across it once again…looks like I must now find and read this book. Although my grandfather lives there on DeLoume Road, I myself never got to spend any time there due to family dynamics. Will post any similarities between book and actual place once I have read and revisited :)

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kevin: I can’t wait to hear back from you. The novel certainly has its supporters — an entirely worthwhile debut, I would say.

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