A Bird’s Eye, by Cary Fagan

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Cary Fagan is one of Canada’s mid-list authors, best known for his children’s books, who made a step forward in the adult literary world in 2012 when his short story collection, My Life Among The Apes, made it to the Giller Prize shortlist. I had not read any of his books before and was not overly impressed with the collection, except in one important sense. In a couple of stories, Fagan brought eyes and ears that showed he really understands a couple of the characteristics that make Toronto a distinctive city, not just in Canada but the world. One is its multi-culturalism, often expressed in distinct ethnic neighborhoods (Toronto has more “Little Whatevers” than any city I know). The other was his ability to describe what happens in the “neighborhoods” where those cultures interact — best illustrated in the collection by the story “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese”, set in Toronto’s below-street-level PATH system, a 17-mile retail/walkway network connecting virtually all of the city’s downtown.

Kensington Market, which I know relatively well, is another one of those interactive neighborhoods, so when I read that A Bird’s Eye was partially set there it sparked my interest. And that interest was heightened by the fact that the teenage narrator’s mother is an Italian immigrant; his father, an Eastern European Jew. Both seemed to play to the strengths that I had found in the story collection.

We first meet the mother, Bella, born in a village a day’s walk from Naples — with a hand-shaped birthmark on her face that will define her as an outcast for life. Her family emigrates to Toronto (she says they were headed for America but “her ignorant father thought that Toronto was in New York State”) and settles in Little Italy there where her father opens a greengrocer’s shop.

Destined she is sure for unhappy spinsterhood, on August 23, 1924 at the age of 23 Bella decides to kill herself. After a day at the movies, she heads down to the south end of Yonge Street and catches the ferry to Toronto Island, determined to throw herself off. Her courage deserts her on the rainy outbound trip, but on the way back it is restored and she climbs the rail — but her skirt catches on a screw and she cries out:

The man who heard her cry was named Jacob Kleeman. His own clothes were drenched and, being gaunt-faced and bony-limbed, with little flesh on him to keep in the heat even in August, he shivered while his crooked teeth chattered. Yet he was determined to test his new mechanical toy. A fish, nine inches long and made of several articulated tin sections plus the head and hinged fins. Wound up with a key and attached to a rod and short line, it was supposed to act like a real fish that had been hooked.

He has thrown the mechanical fish into the water and it has already failed, when he hears the cry. He races to the rail, grabs Bella and she collapses into his arms:

Between gasps, he spoke to her in Yiddish, one moment soothingly and the next barking with anger. She responded in the dialect of her village. They did not let go of each other until the ferry clanged against the wharf, when they moved down the gangway, his arm supporting her waist.

Each assumed the other to be a greener, just off the boat and without English. They made their way past the dark warehouses and railway sidings until they came to a small lot where a leaking feather mattress lay on a mound of corrugated iron. They fell together with a hunger that neither of them had ever felt so intensely, although neither was a virgin.

Their fumbled love-making complete, Jacob walks Bella home, thinking “she is my only chance at happiness“. She thinks exactly the same but “they were both as wrong as they could be”.

That backstory and forewarning in place, Fagan advances the story 15 years. Their son, the narrator Benjamin, is then 14. It is the height of the Depression — Bella is keeping the family (barely) afloat operating a vegetable stand in Kensington Market, Jacob is unemployed and still designing mechanical toys, and Benjamin is looking for diversions to help him escape from both.

All three will have adventures as the book progresses, but the main ones belong to Benjamin. He runs into Corrine Foster, the daughter of a black who works for Mr. Pullman on the trains, and immediately falls into adolescent infatuation. And when he takes her to a vaudeville house and sees a conjuring act, he falls in love with magic almost as quickly — it is that last love that becomes the major narrative thread of the book:

The thing about magic is that it must be taken very, very seriously. If you don’t, it can become a joke. This is why so many performing conjurors have an attitude of pompous gravity on the stage. They are, at heart, deathly afraid of being laughed at. They need to be believed in, like Tinker Bell in the famous play, or they will fade away. Even more, what a conjuror needs is for himself to believe. To believe that what he does has a deeper meaning.

That brief summary indicates that A Bird’s Eye does not have much plot to it — yes, there are three story lines (Benjamin’s, Bella’s and Jacob’s) but outside of the fact the three live in the same house they rarely cross. Instead, the author uses each for a succession of set pieces, connected mainly by the diverse city in which they take place.

Fagan did make one prize list this fall with A Bird’s Eye (the Writers’ Trust Award) and I am again somewhat surprised. The book is more novella than novel (it is 178 pages but they are small, the type is large and there are page breaks in the 40 chapters) and it is much more an entertaining diversion than the kind of challenging story one expects to see on prize lists.

Having said that, the author is a talented wordsmith and the set pieces succeed more often than fail. And the sensitivity he showed to Toronto’s many cultures and neighborhoods is again well displayed here. If you are looking for a three-hour distraction that both engages and entertains (which pretty much sums up my mood when I opened the book), you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of A Bird’s Eye.

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2 Responses to “A Bird’s Eye, by Cary Fagan”

  1. David Says:

    Right at the top of your review, Kevin, you mention that Fagan is best known for his children’s books, and that was my problem with ‘A Bird’s Eye': remove a few “adult” scenes and this is essentially a novel for children (especially towards the end). Nothing wrong with that as such, I just don’t particularly enjoy that kind of writing. Fagan is clearly a fine storyteller, but I found it a bit old-fashioned and whilst I did enjoy it (and you’re right: it can be read very quickly so doesn’t outstay its welcome) I’ve also pretty quickly forgotten it. “An entertaining diversion” sums it up very well I think.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      In support of your opening comment, when it came time to write the review a couple of weeks after reading the book, I could recall Benjamin’s adventures quite well but had pretty much forgotten his mother’s and father’s (which is why, except for their meeting, they get pretty short shrift in my review).

      And there is certainly nothing the matter with entertaining diversions — for me this one came between The Orenda and Two Solitudes, both 500 pages of reading that required some concentration, so I welcomed something that provided a bit of a break.

      I’ll keep an eye on Fagan. He may be one of those steady writers who eventually shows up with a major work — he does have a lot going for him.

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