Archive for December, 2013

Constance, by Patrick McGrath

December 30, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

Author Patrick McGrath lets us know from the start that his title character is a troubled, incomplete soul:

My name is Constance Schulyer Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said good-bye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh, I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

On the surface, all looks to be fine. Sidney is a distinguished academic “who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart”, an effective and popular lecturer, although he is having some difficulty translating that in-person success into his book The Conservative Heart (“One day it was brilliant, the next it stank.”).

And at first glance, Constance herself has an attractive career as an editor at a New York publishing firm, although her slim confidence even there is threatened when she tells her editor-in-chief that she is in love. Her boss asks Constance if she finds her work fulfilling and when the response is yes, the editor-in-chief says “You hold on to it then…. I assumed she meant that I couldn’t love Sidney Klein and my job at the same time but I told her I could.”

The early days of marriage are happy but troublesome signs (at least in Constance’s ever-questioning mind) start to show early. Sidney treats her well enough in day-to-day matters and the sex is fine, but “he knew so much more than me and after a while this grew irksome”. As well, Sidney carries his academic behavioral style over into his personal relationships — his dialectic challenging constantly undermines Constance’s already limited self-confidence.

I have only read one other McGrath novel (Trauma) but from that limited exposure would say that as an author he has only a remote interest in developing the apparently “normal” aspect of his character’s lives. Rather, his focus is on the insecurity and incompleteness that are ever-present undercurrents in their self-evaluation and how little it takes to set those currents roiling. We can tell from the opening words quoted above that Constance has a lot of negative experiences that are still rippling from her past — as the novel proceeds, those will become even more real and new ones based in the present will be added.

Those present-day ones start to acquire substance when Constance’s younger sister, Iris, moves to New York City from upstate, ostensibly to start medical school. Their mother had died when Constance was in her teens and, before she moved to the city, she became a kind-of substitute mother. But as Iris matured, their relationship cooled:

She’d made several visits to New York while she was in college and I was never unhappy to put her on a train back upstate. She was more trouble than she’d ever been in high school. In the brief periods I’d spent with her she exhausted me.

Iris moves into an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown”, finds a job at an hotel and takes up serious partying, drinking and sleeping around. When Constance visits Iris at the hotel, Iris immediately takes her to the bar which features a lounge-lizard pianist, Eddie Castrol. “Doesn’t he remind you of Daddy?” Iris whispers — hardly a positive assessment, given what we already know of Constance’s relationship with her father. Things quickly spiral downhill for Constance when it becomes apparent that Iris and Eddie are having an affair: “I imagined him feasting on her plump soft heavy body like some kind of animal.”

Troubles with Daddy from the past that still linger. Marriage as a desperate attempt to start a new, positive life. The arrival of a sister who not only revives all those old troubles but brings with her life-style a whole new set. And all that is merely McGrath setting the table for even darker developments.

It would be a needless spoiler to go into details, but it is only fair to observe that things do get much, much worse on all three fronts: Daddy, Sidney and Iris. We do find out what was behind the difficult relationships with both parent and sibling. And while Sidney is the most sympathetic (and least disturbed) of the central characters, his incompleteness comes from his self-preoccupation — even when he wants to be of help, he does not have much to offer.

While an assortment of disturbing developments and outright tragedies do occur, as I said earlier McGrath’s interest is in what sort of response these provoke under the surface, most particularly Constance’s surface. We know from the start that she is incomplete, with very limited coping skills, so it gives nothing away to say that things don’t just get worse, they get exponentially worse.

For this reader, that made Constance a very frustrating novel. I appreciated McGrath’s talent throughout, but the more fully he painted his picture, the more isolated I felt. Rather than finding Constance’s insecurity (and her inadequate responses to it) part of a character who deserved at least some sympathy, I found her becoming ever more annoying — perhaps that was the author’s intention but all it did for me was produce sour distaste. Life did deal her a bad hand but with every “choice” she makes, she succeeds in making it worse.

As I read the book, I did find myself reminded of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs which also features a central character who experiences disappointment after disappointment. The crucial difference is that while Messud’s character responds with anger towards those around her, McGrath’s Constance’s resentment produces mainly internalized responses.

From reviews that I have read, both novels have provoked a widely-varied response. I suspect it is a case that readers who have a deeper personal feeling than I do of what it is like to experience mistreatment firsthand can find more in these novels than I did. For my part, if I ran into any of these people in real life, I’d politely excuse myself and head to the other side of the room — as much as I appreciate the two authors’ talent in developing them, I can’t say I find them any more appealing in a book.


2013 — KfC’s 10 best

December 23, 2013

As regular visitors here know, my special project for 2013 was to reread works from 12 Canadian authors who had influenced me in my youth (a project that will extend into 2014 with two reviews yet to come). That produced an even more “Canadian” slant than usual to my reading this year — reflected in the fact that five of these 10 are the work of Canadian authors.

Still, the very subjective list has some variety: three titles from my project, two Giller contenders, two Booker Prize shortlisted books and three “others” that impressed me very much. My Canadian project meant less reading of true classics from around the world in 2013 — I intend to remedy that shortfall in 2014. The list, presented in the order that I read them:

2013 miller Autumn Laing, by Alex Miller. Autumn Laing is Australian Alex Miller’s tenth novel (he has just released his eleventh) but it was my first — I was impressed enough with it that I have decided to read the preceding nine in order (a review of his first, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, was posted just a few weeks back). This one is a memory novel — Autumn Laing is 85 when we meet her but a recent chance encounter has put her in mind of a grievous harm she did another woman 53 years back. She “stole” that woman’s man and it eventually led to a comfortable life with a wealthy husband where they turned their home into an Austalian version of a Bloomsbury-like retreat for creative types. The encounter has provoked major memories of regret — the novel that results is not just a portrayal of the artistic way of life, it captures a picture of post-colonial Australia trying to find its own non-British character.

2013 connnell Mrs. Bridge, by Evan Connell. Mrs. Bridge is one of those novels that has been around for more than half a century but is experiencing a bit of a revival — and virtually every blogger who reads it ends up adding it to their annual top 10 list (I have John Self’s review at the Asylum to thank for sparking my interest). India Bridge is one of those passive female characters of mid-west America in the 1930s (a precursor of Morag Gunn in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, also on this list) who starts a lot of “projects” and finishes none. Risk averse as she might be, Mrs. Bridge’s comfortable, country club life starts to run into crisis after crisis, none of which she handles well — but in the final analysis Connell creates a character who inspires both sympathy and love, a tribute to a writer’s job exceedingly well done.

2013 koch The Dinner, by Herman Koch. The Dinner, translated from the Dutch, is on a lot of North American 2013 best lists and for good reason. The first half of Koch’s novel is laugh-out-loud funny as two Dutch couples (the two men are brothers who don’t much like each other) experience the pretentiousness of an “in” restaurant. Behind that satiric humor, however, the author is setting the stage for the latter half of his story — all of these four are developed as very dislikable people and, as dinner proceeds, they descend into a no-win conflict over a criminal incident involving their two sons. There are no winners in this novel — except for the reader.

2013 laurence The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence. The last of Margaret Laurence’s “Manawaka” novels, this is another “writer’s” novel — Morag Gunn is a successful author approaching her fiftieth birthday looking back at just how she got to where she is. That story starts in Manawaka and moves on to Toronto and Vancouver, before ending up at the Ontario riverside where she now lives. Published in 1974, The Diviners is not just the story of mid-twentieth century Canada it is a study of the challenges that faced creative women during the post-war years in North America — a true classic, well worth revisiting.

2013 crace Harvest, by Jim Crace. My personal choice (but not the jury’s) as this years Booker Prize winner, this morality tale set in a feudal English settlement of 58 weary souls contains allegories galore. The community is under threat from two sources: the new master (a distant relative of the one the community has become used to) wants to turn the area into a sheep farm which will have work for far fewer people while at the same time the arrival on its outskirts by three strangers claiming land has provoked a different set of concerns. Without giving too much away, the final third of the novel is a study in isolation and loneliness — the allegory of the loneliness that comes with being a writer was the one that struck me most strongly as Crace had announced before publication that this would be his last work.

2013 ryan The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan. This little gem of a novel is one of those rare ones that has become progressively more memorable in the months since I read it. In a slim 156 pages, Ryan uses 21 chapters, each sketching the story of an individual in an Irish village — one dramatically effected by a corrupt contractor who has built one of the country’s “ghost estates” on the outskirts of town. While there are both heroes and villains in the group, what emerges more than anything else is a mosaic-like picture of a community of very ordinary people struggling to find its place in the twenty-first century. Word is that Ryan has a second book coming out in 2014 (apparently written at the same time he was penning this debut) — I can’t wait for its appearance.

1aa vyleta The Crooked Maid, by Dan Valeta. In his Acknowledgements at the end of The Crooked Maid Dan Valeta says “I wanted to write a world, not a book” — and for this reader he succeeded in doing just that. That world is post-war Vienna, struggling to escape the corrupt moral code of Nazism, but still searching for just what the new peacetime version might be. The novel opens by introducing characters who are coming to post-war Vienna because of (perhaps) a missing husband, a suspicious death (perhaps murder) and the crooked maid of the title (we aren’t sure just what her “perhaps” history is). Valeta successfully sustains all those story lines but his greater interest is in the “world” of a famous city that is in the midst of a change that none of its residents quite yet understand.

1aaboyden The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. If I was forced to pick a single “best book of 2013” instead of 10, this would be the one — when the Real Giller jury left it off the short list, our Shadow Giller panel called in The Orenda and it was our unanimous choice as the winner. Boyden’s novel comes with three voices: A Huron elder, a young Iroquois girl he has taken as hostage to be a replacement for his daughter killed in a previous battle and a Jesuit priest who is the forerunner of the European invasion that is to come. The conflicts between First Nations tribes are described in painful, gruesome detail — the developing and even more damaging conflict between the aboriginal people and European invaders looms as a picture of the future. It is not the easiest novel to read, but it is a truly brilliant one.

maclennan2 Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan. The political conflict between English and French visions of Canada has been a constant presence in my adult life — in this novel written in 1945, Hugh MacLennan supplies a picture of that conflict that is relevant to this day. The character we first meet, Athanese Tallard, is a virtual seigneur in a small village east of Montreal — he is also an MP in Ottawa who has an understanding that the two cultures need to be bridged. A retired Nova Scotia seafarer, a priest determined to protect his power, financial heavyweights from the Montreal English community and the next generation (who already are experiencing the conflict) all play a part in this wide-ranging novel that well deserves its fame.

macleod Island: The Collected Stories, by Alistair MacLeod. For this reader, Alistair MacLeod rivals Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro in his ability to show what just how good a short story can be. Island includes all 16 of his published stories — he brings Canada’s Cape Breton Island to concrete life (both the highs and lows) and painstakingly creates characters who are fully realized in every story. The book is a special treat that deserves to be spaced out and carefully savoured in the reading.

As for 2014, those of us who follow prizes have two developments to look forward to already. The Folio Prize will announce its first shortlist in February from a longlist of 80 (60 English-language novels chosen from favorites submitted by the Folio panel of more than 100 authors and critics from around the world, 20 more called in by the five-person international jury). I’ll decide whether to try to read and review the whole shortlist once it is announced. And the Booker Prize is now “the old Booker” in name only, no longer restricted to authors with Commonwealth citizenship but open to any novel published in English in the United Kingdom. I’ve always tried to review as many Booker longlist titles as possible — we shall see in July when the longlist is announced whether that is still a viable goal.

KfC’s 2013 Project: Island: The Collected Stories, by Alistair MacLeod

December 18, 2013

Personal collection

Personal collection

When it came time to select the books for this project more than a year ago, one decision was easy. While my reading of short stories is more guiltily conscientious (“I really should”) than avid (“I can’t wait for the next collection”), two story writers demanded inclusion: Alice Munro (I’ll get to her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, next month to conclude the project) and Alistair MacLeod. I am not alone in facing that decision, incidentally — when Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin in 2000 picked the 200 best English-language “novels” since 1950 for the Modern Library, they stretched the rules to include collections from both Munro and MacLeod.

So when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months back, I was delighted to see my judgment reflected by a far more credible source. And a part of me was just a bit disappointed that a short story writer who, for my taste, is every bit as outstanding was left on the sidelines yet again.

Munro and MacLeod do have much in common. They were born only five years apart (Munro in 1931, MacLeod 1936) and neither published a collection until they were approaching age 40. Both are acutely aware of their Scots heritage — Munro devoted a memoir-like volume (The View From Castle Rock) to her ancestral story, MacLeod’s ancestors (like those of many of his characters) came to this country in the 1790s.

So why is Munro known and loved by readers around the world while MacLeod’s global reputation seems restricted to academic and publishing professionals, rather than readers? I’d suggest it is due to two factors:

  • MacLeod simply does not publish very much: two seven-story collections, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth The Sun (1986) (collected with two additional stories, “Island” and “Clearances”, in this volume published in 2000) and one novel, No Great Mischief (1999). Indeed, you can purchase his entire fiction catalogue at Indigo online for $31.76 and read his complete oeuvre in a weekend (although I certainly would not advise that).
  • Like the “Munro country” of southwestern Ontario, MacLeod has his space: Cape Breton Island. Anyone who has ever visited Cape Breton knows how spectacularly beautiful it is but you only have to be there for a few days to appreciate how difficult it would be to live and survive on the island — there is a reason why the Scots ended up here. The resources that kept Cape Bretoners afloat (fishing, lumber and coal-mining) have all been in decline for more than half a century and the painful results of that are a constant in MacLeod’s stories. His characters are every bit as human and humane as Munro’s are — the environment they live in is much bleaker and far more punishing. The joy that often shows up in a Munro story to offset the sadness simply is not present in MacLeod’s excellent work.
  • The 16 stories in Island are presented in the order in which they were written and, for this reader at least, the result reads like two novels, each with an overriding theme, followed by a coda in the final two stories.

    All change, be it of choice or of necessity, involves loss — even if the end result is overwhelmingly positive, what the individual first experiences is that loss. It is that sense of what is about to be or has been lost that permeates the seven stories first published in The Lost Salt Gift of Blood.

    While there is nuance and subtlety in how that is presented in most of the stories, I’ll focus on one, “The Vastness of the Dark”, where it is presented directly. James, the narrator, comes from a mining family — both his grandfather and father were Cape Breton miners but even in his father’s era the coal mines were running out and miners needed to head to Quebec, Ontario, the West or the U.S. to practise their trade, speeding home to family in crowded cars with fellow miners whenever they could for a few days or weeks.

    James knows that won’t work for him and the story opens as he awakes on his eighteenth birthday on June 28, 1960, the day he has set for his departure. After a few pages of backstory sketching James’ family and, most particularly, his discovery of his own pre-marriage conception (which closed off his father’s chance to escape Cape Breton), MacLeod quickly brings James’ challenge to a head:

    But after today, I will probably not think about it any more. For today I leave behind this grimy Cape Breton coal-mining town whose prisoner I have been all my life. And I have decided that almost any place must be better than this one with its worn-out mines and smoke-black houses; and the feeling has been building within me for the last few years. It seems to have come almost with the first waves of sexual desire and with it to have grown stronger and stronger with the passing months and years. For I must not become as my father whom I now hear banging the stove-lids below me as if there were some desperate rush about it all and some place that he must be in a very short time. Only to go nowhere. And I must not be as my grandfather who is now an almost senile old man, nearing ninety, who sits by the window all day saying his prayers and who in his moments of clarity remembers mostly his conquests over coal, and recounts tales of how straight were the timbers he and my father erected in the now caved-in underground drifts of twenty-five years ago when he was sixty-two and my father twenty-five and I not yet conceived.

    That seems powerful enough reason to get out, but the sense of what he is about to lose is quickly hammered home. He has risen early, he tells his mother in the kitchen, so he can depart before his younger brothers and sisters are up:

    “It will be easier that way.”

    My mother moves the kettle toward the back of the stove, as if stalling for time, then she turns and says, “Where will you go? To Blind River?”

    Her response is so little like that which I had anticipated that I feel strangely numb. For I had somehow expected her to be greatly surprised, astounded, astonished, and she is none of these. And her mention of Blind River, the centre of Northern Ontario’s uranium mines, is something and someplace that I had never even thought of. It is as if my mother had not only known that I was to leave but had even planned my route and final destination. I am reminded of my reading in school of the way Charles Dickens felt about the blacking factory and his mother’s being so fully in favour of it. In favour of a life for him which he considered so terrible and so far beneath his imagined destiny.

    His father’s response is equally unsettling:

    My father turns from the window and says, “You are only eighteen today, perhaps you could wait awhile. Something might turn up.” But within his eyes I see no strong commitment to his words and I know he feels that waiting is at best weary and at worst hopeless. This also makes me somehow rather disappointed and angry as I had thought somehow my parents would cling to me in a kind of desperate fashion and I would have to be very firm and strong.

    “What is there to wait for?” I say, asking a question that is useless and to which I know the all-too-obvious answer. “Why do you want me to stay here?”

    “You misunderstand,” says my father, “you are free to go if you want to. We are not forcing you or asking you to do anything. I am only saying that you do not have to go now.”

    James also stops at his grandparents on his way out of town. His grandmother gives him two letters sent more than two decades earlier to his father (then working at the mines in Kellogg, Idaho). One is from his grandfather, urging his father to come back to Cape Breton (“The seam is good for years yet. No one has been killed for some time now. It is getting better.”) The other, written the same day, is from his grandmother (“If you return here now you will never get out and this is no place to lead one’s life. They say the seam will be finished in another few years. Love, Mother”)

    James’ grandfather shows him to the door and supplies the exclamation point to the painful goodbyes that are reminders of what is being lost:

    “Don’t forget to come back, James,” he says, “it’s the only way you’ll be content. Once you drink underground water it becomes a part of you like the blood a man puts into a woman. It changes her forever and never goes away. There’s always a part of him running there deep inside her. It’s what will wake you up at night and never ever leave you alone.”

    James does escape and we follow his route for some pages before MacLeod returns to his overarching theme at the end of the story (I should note that, again like Munro, MacLeod is great at closing lines). He’s been picked up by a carload of miners outside Springhill, Nova Scotia (a mainland coal-mining town) on their way to (surprise) Blind River:

    “I guess your people have been on the coal over there for a long time?” asks the voice beside me.

    “Yes,” I say, “since 1873.”

    “Son of a bitch,” he says, after a pause, “it seems to bust your balls and it’s bound to break your heart.”

    That theme of hopelessness and loss is also present in the seven stories from As Birds Bring Forth The Sun, but MacLeod adds another constant thread. He looks at the impact of time and the changes that it brings, particularly as one Cape Breton season moves to the next — the titles of three successive stories (“To Everything There Is A Season”, “Second Spring” and “Winter Dog”) are indication enough of one thread that he introduces.

    And finally, there are the two coda stories where MacLeod underlines that his Cape Bretoners are not merely the product of generations but of centuries. Virtually all of MacLeod’s stories feature family characters from three adult generations — “Island” and “Clearances” emphasize that this thread extends back to the original departure from Scotland. In “Clearances”, a Cape Bretoner who is serving in the Canadian forces in World War II heads to northern Scotland on furlough and runs into a shepherd. “You are from Canada? You are from the Clearances?” the shepherd asks — the Clearances being the eviction of Scots from the land in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. “Yes, I guess so” is the response.

    This review is already far too long and I fear that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to convey how good MacLeod’s writing is. Even on first read, but particularly on second and third, you come to understand why he only produced one short story a year — every word and phrase is perfectly chosen, every character is fully developed, all in 25 or 30 pages. While I normally urge people to read only one or two stories a day from a collection, with MacLeod I would say the best approach is to plan on reading one a week — that allows for the multiple readings that the author both deserves and rewards.

    I’ll leave the last word to Douglas Gibson, the legendary Canadian publisher who edited No Great Mischief and this compilation. In the chapter on MacLeod in his memoir, Stories About Storytellers, (hilarious in its own right on what it took for Gibson to finally pry the manuscript of the novel from MacLeod’s hands — variations of the story are like urban legends in Canadian publishing), Gibson includes the following:

    Since Alistair is busy giving speeches and accepting prizes around the world, he is not doing much writing, dammit — or, to be precise, he is not admitting to me, when I ask, that he is doing much writing.

    Given that it has now been almost 15 years since we last saw a new work, I take that sentence as a hopeful sign — maybe, just maybe, we may yet see another collection from this truly exceptional writer. In the meantime, if you have not yet read him, spend the $31.76 and discover how good one of the best writers I know really is — you will not be disappointed.

    Watching The Climbers On The Mountain, by Alex Miller

    December 9, 2013

    Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin

    Perhaps it comes from living in a city that still celebrates its cowtown roots, but I have always had a soft spot for “frontier” novels. From my own part of the world, Guy Vanderhaeghe has long been a favorite — I read The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing before I started blogging; the final volume in his Western trilogy, A Good Man, is reviewed here. John Williams’ Stoner may have exploded in popularity this year, 50 years after its publication, but I was a devotee of his portrayal of the American West more than a decade back (you can check out John Self’s thoughts on Stoner here — the equally good Butcher’s Crossing is reviewed by John here and Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes here). And I am also a long-time fan of Wallace Stegner — I reread Angle of Repose in the early days of this blog and intend to revisit The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 2014.

    I have also long been intrigued by similarities between the literature of my Canadian frontier home and the Australian version on the other side of the globe (in the early days of the blog I expanded on this with some examples of comparable works in an essay here). On that Antipodean front, I was introduced earlier this year to the work of Australian Alex Miller with his 2012 novel, Autumn Laing, and impressed enough that I resolved to read his entire back catalogue, in order.

    Watching The Climbers On The Mountain (1988) is book one in that nine book project and, while it is not one of his prize winners, it is a frontier story of the first order — more than worthy of comparison with my North American favorites.

    One of the traits that all these novels have in common (and it is a reflection of reality) is that frontiers attract misfits, people with serious character flaws or challenges that make them unhappy denizens of the “settled” world, eager to find a new home in a world where “order” has not yet acquired a formal definition that makes them uncomfortable. Miller’s excellent debut novel, set in the Central Highlands of Queensland, revolves around three such misfits:

  • Ward Rankin is the owner and manager of the isolated cattle station where the action takes place and the dominating human force in the novel (nature is always the true dominating force in frontier novels):

    At fifty-sx Ward Rankin was a disappointed man and was easily aroused to extremes of irritation and even — especially in his dealings with the animals — to outbursts of violence. But he was not predictable in this and could be gracious, even charming, so that his family treated him with caution, forever hoping for the best. He stayed indoors as much as possible and loathed the work of the station, doing the minimum needed to keep the place going. He was a short brittle man, nervous, well-read, priding himself on his civilised habits. An only son, for many years he had managed the property for his aged mother. It was not what he had intended for himself.

    Ward is a collector of “brown stamps” — when someone, or the world, treats him like crap, he feels it gives him the right to treat someone less powerful than himself (even an animal) with even greater cruelty.

  • His wife, Ida, also had plans for herself which failed to come to fruition:

    Ward was forty-one by the time his mother died. A year or two before this he had married Ida Sturgiss, a girl from a neighboring station who had volunteered to help out. She was eighteen. A few months later their first child, Janet, was born. Eighteen months after Janet came Alistair. Ward Rankin never got away from the station and with time he grew to resent the circumstances that bound him to it.

    Ida’s resentment over her lost chances is every bit as deep.

  • Ward and Ida may have evolved into an uneasy, dispirited truce over 15 years but it is disrupted with the arrival at the station of a new stockman, 18-year-old Robert Crofts. Raised in poverty in England, he has chosen to flee as far as possible and ended up in rural Queensland:

    At first they teased him about his shyness but soon recognized that it was something more than this. There was a closed solitariness about him that was not natural in a young man. He brought this solitariness with him. It was deeper than theirs — it had nothing to do with geography — and they hadn’t expected it. Robert Crofts was also very beautiful. His body was strong and well-muscled, he was slim and upright and his movements were finely coordinated. His rather Germanic features were slightly elongated and his lips were full and red. In the expression of his eyes, which were a deep and luminous brown, there seemed to be an observation on his surroundings that he could not be brought to utter.

  • The rigors of surviving frontier life may be enough to cause a couple to bury their differences and unhappiness — the introduction of a third party (two’s company, three’s a crowd) brings those feelings poisonously bubbling to the surface.

    The ages of the three are important to author Miller’s structure. At fifty-six, Ward is old enough to be Ida’s father. At thirty-three, she is closer in age to Robert than to her husband. And at 18, Robert is a daily reminder to Ida of her own self when she arrived at the station.

    In the early chapters of the novel, this plays out as a desperate attempt to define new roles. Ward dislikes Robert from the start. Instead of admiring his capacity for work, he reviles it — perhaps a reflection of his own guilt for laziness and forever starting projects that he never finishes. His response is to make even more unreasonable demands in an attempt to break the young man.

    Robert, for his part, discovers that any attempt to escape into a new routine is constantly denied by the owner’s irrational demands. Fifteen-year-old Janet develops a bit of a crush for him, which complicates matters for a youth who is trying to act older than his own years. Life at the station for Robert is based on shifting sand rather than a firm foundation — indeed, an incident featuring a literal sinkhole brings the tension between himself and Ward to a head.

    And Ida, who ended up chained to the station by choosing marriage as the path of least resistance, watches all this with growing frustration. As matters get worse, she more and more sees how Robert’s difficulties as a reflection of her own when she arrived there at the same age — all of which re-awakens the dreams and hopes she had for her life fifteen years back.

    Incomplete misfits may be able to get by in normal times — the introduction of change tends to make their flaws even more predominant. Once he has established the limitations of the three, Miller carefully shows how grasping at straws to seek a resolution makes things even worse. (Vanderhaeghe, Williams and Stegner all explore this same phenomenon of hopelessness — I’d say it is another constant of frontier fiction. There is a reason why misfits have sought refuge in the un-ordered world.)

    Like Williams and Stegner, who have not been getting the attention they deserve, Alex Miller is not a familiar name to Northern Hemisphere audiences. Autumnn Laing attracted positive attention, so hopefully that will soon change. Publishers Allen & Unwin (who kindly provided my review copy) have begun re-issuing his earlier novels — those with a taste for well-written fiction set in the developing North American frontier would be well advised to add this Aussie to their reading lists. He is a wordsmith of substantial talent and while his stories may be set on the other side of the world they have much to say to North American audiences.

    A Bird’s Eye, by Cary Fagan

    December 4, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    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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