A Good Book
- Bonnie Burnard (Author)
A Good House. Harper Flamingo (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Barbara Pell
Bonnie Burnard was not exactly a household name when she beat out Timothy Findley and Anne Hébert for the 1999 Giller Prize for Fiction with her first novel, but she had already won the Marian Engel Award, the Commonwealth Best First Book Award (for her first story collection, Women of Influence), and been short-listed for the Giller for Casino and Other Stories. Burnard is comparable to Alice Munro and Carol Shields, for she is a master of the domestic novel.
A Good House is the story of three generations of the Chambers family from 1949 to 1997. Having survived the war (minus three fingers), Bill Chambers returns to Stone-brook, a small southwestern Ontario town near Lake Huron, to his wife, Sylvia, their children, Patrick, Paul, and Daphne, and his job in a hardware store. With typical postwar optimism, "comfortable was what the Chambers were hoping against hope to be." But in 1952 Daphne breaks her jaw, a lifelong deformity that makes her independent and iconoclastic, and in 1955 Sylvia dies of cancer, leaving her husband desolate and her elder son angry and bitter. Less than a quarter of the way into this novel, Burnard, without melodrama or sentimentality, has established the dynamics of this remarkably realistic story about an ordinary family: the delightful joys, the inevitable sorrows, and the love, courage, and resilience that enable people to cope and adapt to life.
Bill remarries Margaret, an old friend, who wisely and gently becomes the relational glue and emotional centre for the family. As their children grow up, they have their own share of triumphs and tragedies: marriages, careers, babies, divorces, disappointments, and deaths. The family circle widens to embrace spouses, ex-spouses, grandchildren, and their spouses. And all the relationships are set in the context of a community of supportive friends and fellow townspeople who bake cakes for weddings and construct a downstairs bathroom for a dying neighbour. Perhaps because we care so much about this family, the tragedies—especially in the two penultimate chapters, 1986 and 1995—seem so painful, contrived, even gratuitous. But the final chapter, 1997, unites the now thirty-seven family members in a wedding picture on the front steps of the Stonebrook Town Hall—"a legend," as Margaret says, of love and mutual support.
The themes of this novel are the power of love and the charity of lies. They unite in the refusal of the unwed Daphne to divulge the name of her daughters’ father; when the secret is revealed at the wedding that ends the novel, the results are typically ambiguous. Concerning one of the many well-meant deceptions in the book, Margaret finally confesses to Patrick that she lied about having been on the same ball-team as his mother in order to comfort and connect with the angry, grieving young man. The middle-aged and self-righteous Patrick, now recognizing the grace of a loving lie over a hurtful truth, forgives her: "Perhaps I can tell you a lie some day." Burnard’s portrait of this ordinary family seems superficially simple but is profoundly complex in its humanistic wisdom and emotional nuances.
The setting for the novel, Stonebrook and the Chambers’ "good house," is precisely and lovingly detailed, as are all the everyday events of this fifties family as it grows up. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary through Burnard’s quiet, undra-matic illumination. The book is structured in ten chapters by years, at first in three-year increments (1949,1952, and so on) and later in longer periods (1956,1963, and so on). But in each section Burnard deftly fills in the missing years to give the reader a full canvas within the ten cameos.
The characterisation is the core of A Good House. The narrative voice is third person, not so much "omniscient" as all-inclusive and compassionate. Margaret dominates the book with her warmth and wisdom. Her relations with her husband and children (and their spouses and children) weave the fabric for this typical but ideal family, with all its frailties and failings. Burnard creates suspense simply through evoking the reader’s intense empathy for the daily lives and futures of her characters.
Above all, this novel celebrates a human strength and grace. The Chambers family finds no solace in religion for their crises (in fact, the absence of the church in their lives may be slightly unrealistic in smalltown 1950s Ontario). Near the end of the book, as Patrick remembers his dead mother and brother, his damaged niece and sister, his broken marriage and his senile father, he almost despairs. Margaret’s voice is, like Burnard’s, wisely matter-of-fact and compassionately humanistic:
"It’s all right, Patrick," she said. "You are a kind man. I am a kind woman.
There are lots of us around."
"Do you ever pray?" he asked.
"I don’t waste my time asking for anything," she said. "Although once in a while, perhaps two or three times a year when some small thing happens or maybe doesn’t happen, I catch myself feeling thankful."
And when they go to sleep, "their separate exhaustions" are "absorbed" by the good house—"its safety, its comfort, its simple, blessed walls." Burnard has shared these blessings with the reader, and we are also thankful.
- A Store of Fragments by Michael Fralic
Books reviewed: Diaries of Girls and Women: A Midwestern American Sampler by Suzanne L. Bunkers and The Farm on the North Talbot Road by Allan G. Bogue
- Knowing Sam Selvon by Hélène Buzelin
Books reviewed: The Novels of Samuel Selvon by Roydon Salick
- Another Great Thing by George Elliott Clarke
Books reviewed: Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill
- Barrel Children and Shape-Shifters by Stella Algoo-Baksh
Books reviewed: Island Wings: A Memoirs by Cecil Foster and The Lagahoo's Apprentice by Rabindranath Maharaj
- Lest We Forget by Coral Ann Howell
Books reviewed: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
MLA: Pell, Barbara. A Good Book. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 115 - 116)
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