- Alan Cumyn (Author)
Burridge Unbound. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Scott Gardiner (Author)
The Dominion of Wyley McFadden. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- James Heneghan (Author)
The Grave. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Klay Dyer
Reading Scott Gardiner’s The Dominion of Wyley McFadden is an experience akin to watching reruns of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or exploring the shadows of a painting by Mary Pratt. Marking tentative pathways through indefinite worlds of troubled and troubling refractions, this work re-illuminates the deceptively mundane surfaces and linoleum familiarities of the everyday, bringing to them the rough caress of what Gardiner’s indefatigable protagonist describes as "a deceptive light, a decidedly complicated light, coming in from more than one direction."
A disgraced andrologist turned urban trapper, Torontonian McFadden is questing westward with a mission: to re-seed Alberta (Canada’s only rat-free province) with carefully selected colonies of Rattus norvégiens, to redress what he sees as a landmark case of zoomorphic discrimination, and in the process to reinvigorate the spirit of Confederation in the sometimes surly foothills province. (The framework of the 1867 agreement, "after all, was supposed to be based on equality of assets.") With his cargo stowed in a modified camper van, McFadden ventures incident-free to the eastern shores of Lake Superior, where he comes across a young woman hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere, clad only in a mud-crusted tennis outfit and losing her battle against a bloodthirsty cloud of mosquitoes. Against his better judgment, and ignoring risk of discovery, McFadden stops to pick her up. Unable to ascertain her identity, how she came to be stranded, or where she is heading, he soon finds himself "grinding up" slope after "endless slope in the company of a passenger who fits his itinerary absolutely nowhere."
With a keen eye for the ironies and absurdities of contemporary Canada, Gardiner proves himself a more than capable first-time novelist. At its core Wyley McFadden is a road story, and as such finds its central dynamics in those inevitable moments when the all-too-familiar excuse for polite silence—"it’s a long story"—collides head-on with that liberating (or is it irksome?) road-trip truism: "You have a long time." A man "more enamoured of words than of other kinds of sounds," McFadden is a natural storyteller whose talent Gardiner celebrates, allowing his curious mind to slide effortlessly across an eclectic array of subjects, from the nature of guilt ("invented as a spur to the imagination") and the culinary arts ("Life without fresh pepper [. . .] would not be worth the effort") to the benign civilities of CBC Radio and the navel-gazing of Canadian federalism. But like any good road trip, this one is about much more than simply checking kilometres off the map, and as provincial crossings accumulate and McFadden’s stories turn increasingly inward, the unnamed passenger begins to weave her own elliptical tale, a dark countermovement that is hinted at too obviously in the bruises and night terrors that McFadden observes.
With an intellectual edge and playful trans-Canadianness to its credit, The Dominion of Wyley McFadden is not without weaknesses, to be sure. There are the expected stretches of first-novel verbosity, and a few too many plot elements read like retread Law and Order scripts, notably those surrounding the scandal that drove McFadden out of medicine and a sex slavery ring operated by a pair of sadistic behaviourists. One might object, too, that Gardiner is perpetuating the usual constellation of ethnic stereotypes here, most notably in his rendering of a back story of abuse by Native elders and in the characterization of Toronto’s Chinese community; however, in the larger context of this work such criticism would mark a dangerously dismissive reduction of the broader ironies at play. This is a novel in which the politics and humour are not always subtle or civil, but in such risks come both the pleasures and pains of life on the open road.
Roads (both literal and metaphoric) play a central role, too, in Burridge Unbound, Ottawa writer Alan Cumyn’s fourth work of fiction and a novel shortlisted for the Giller Prize. It picks up where his 1998 Man of Bone left off. As Alistair MacLeod suggests in his jacket blurb, this is "a story about the fragility [.. .] of life pushed to the edge," of "a man at a precarious crossroads." Almost three years removed from a roadside kidnapping by terrorists on the fictional island of Santa Irene, Bill Burridge is still struggling to regain his footing, still mapping his way back from nine months lived "far beyond the bandwidth of normal human experience." The founder and ail-too public face of a cash-strapped but internationally recognized human-rights organization, Burridge is tired of the bureaucratic posturings that define official Ottawa culture ("a sickening game"). Tormented by memories of atrocities endured, he also finds himself unable and at times unwilling to cope with the burdens of a disintegrating personal life. Following the assassination of Santa Irene’s long-time dictator, and the subsequent rise to power of the enigmatic widow Suli Nylioko, Burridge is invited back to the island to serve as a member of a Truth Commission.
Bearing witness to the "relentless" testimony of the ever-growing community of sorialos ("shadows waiting to speak") gathering outside Commission headquarters, Burridge is forced to confront not only the contours of his personal horrors but also the false hopes born of his political naïveté, the real politics of truthfulness in a shadowy world of unsure loyalties and unimaginable violence, and (in the narrative’s least engaging thread) the energies informing his increasingly sexual relationship with the leader Nylioko.
What establishes Burridge Unbound as a superior novel to, say, Atwood’s Bodily Harm (1981) is Cumyn’s willingness to push his "hero" beyond the platitudes and pseudo-liberal paternalism of mainstream activism. An intensely political animal by nature, Burridge is at the same time woefully unaware that he lacks a full complement of the necessary backroom instincts; a media player willing to market "the integrity of [his] suffering," he suddenly finds himself susceptible to equally public meltdowns and moments of hyperbolic self-promotion; a highly principled man, he remains painfully human. Burridge Unbound deserves to garner substantial critical attention and MacLeod’s assessment is an accurate one: "Alan Cumyn is a writer of remarkable talent."
Reviewing James Heneghan’s The Grave alongside such "adult" novels as Wyley McFadden and Burridge Unbound is not particularly fair given its primary audience. Winner of the 2001 Sheila A. Egoff B.C. Book Prize for Children’s Literature, a New York Library Pick for the "Best Books List of 2000," and a Junior Library Guild Pick, as well as being nominated for a host of other literary prizes, The Grave recounts a young orphan’s road trip of quantum dimensions. When thirteen-year-old Tom Mullen hears rumours that a mass grave has been unearthed on the grounds of his Liverpool school, he sneaks through the fence to explore for himself. Drawn into the grave by an inexplicable force, he awakens to find himself no longer in Liverpool or in 1974 but in a small Irish village trapped in the spiraling despair of the 1847 potato famine. Taken in by a family named Monaghan, the young orphan experiences not only the pains of molecular displacement but also the complex emotions of a family facing the realities of an oppressive politics, of daily burials and of a poverty without hope. Ever troublesome, for readers as well as Tom’s surrogate family, are his geo-temporal instabilities, which leave him unsure as to when his next "leap" will occur.
The Grave is based on the true story of a Liverpool contractor’s "discovery" in 1973 of what "turned out to be a mass grave with 3,561 coffins in it," all of which were secretly removed and incinerated over the course of eighteen months. This is a story of erasure, of reducing to ashes the memories of thousands of unidentified remains. The Liverpudlian cover-up held firm for eight years. In many ways each of these three novelists invites readers to imagine the consequences of such inhumanity, to remind ourselves that the roads mapped out before us might be broad and ample but are not paved with gold.
- Journey Through Language and Fear by Tanya Christiansen
Books reviewed: The Knife Sharpener's Bell by Rhea Tregebov
- Two Saskatchewans by John Considine
Books reviewed: Heartland: A Prairie Sampler by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet and Yvette Moore and The Song Within My Heart by David Bouchard and allen Sapp
- Recovering Popular Fiction by Andrea Cabajsky
Books reviewed: Quietly My Captain Waits by Evelyn Eaton, The Night Hawk by Alice Jones, and With Wolfe in Canada by G. A. Henty
- Rueful Affirmative by Mark Harris
Books reviewed: Vers le sud by Dany Laferrière
- Italian-Canadian Diversity by Joseph Pivato
Books reviewed: The Rooming-House by F. G. Paci, Vinnie and Me by Fiorella De Luca Calce, A Rage of Love by Alda Merini, and L'Esilio della Poesia: Poeti italo-canadesi by Marilia Bonincontro
MLA: Dyer, Klay. Crossroads. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 150 - 152)
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