Intimations of Grace
- David Bergen (Author)
A Year of Lesser. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Cary Fagan (Author)
The Doctor's House. paperplates books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard Van Camp (Author)
The Lesser Blessed. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michael Greene
Cary Fagan’s The Doctor’s House is a sparse and surprising book set in 1930s Poland. It is the story of Josef, a young Gentile who is taken in by a Jewish doctor and his family. Josef’s first-person narration vividly recounts memories of life with his mother before the terrible night he was orphaned
in a massacre. His leg badly broken, Josef finds himself in Warsaw, and in the house of Dr. Krochmal. The rest of the book details Josef’s uneasy life as a sheltered outsider in the doctor’s home, and his embryonic desire for Chava, the doctor’s teenaged daughter—all of this in an atmosphere of mounting claustrophobia: anti-semitic persecution, uncrossable borders, and the early rumblings of war.
Labelled a "miniature novel" by its author, The Doctor’s House comprises only 79 pages, and while many of the chapters are less than a page in length, brevity does not interfere with the luminous intensity of Fagan’s prose. Instead of fragmentation, the book achieves immediacy and sharpness; one senses the significance of the smallest details. Indeed, "miniature" makes a fitting label: As a noun, the word can suggest a kind of portraiture, emphasizing the importance of fine detail. Etymologically, "miniature" derives from the art of illuminated manuscripts, alluding to the processes of story- and book-making, and to language and illumination more generally.
These issues are not merely ancillary to Fagan’s miniature; they are foregrounded in a bildungsroman that relates Josef’s increasing command of language to the telling of his story. An illiterate in the early chapters, Josef is threatened and fascinated by writing. His education begins when Chava teaches him to read and when he assists in a workshop where books are created. Later, his understanding of writing evolves beyond the technical when he overhears some advice passing from an old writer to a young poet. When asked about one very moving story, the old man replies, "I heard that story in a tiny prayer house outside of Lemberg. . .. Of course I altered it, the perspective is different, one character added and another taken out. And the ending, well that adds something of my own. But it’s from that prayer house that the voice came. It’s where all our inspiration comes, whether we are able to pray or not." The passage illuminates both story and story- teller, suggesting much about the narrative that contains it. Here, storytelling is an act of prayer, a search for illumination and grace. Also noteworthy is the writer’s comment about his original ending, a manifestation of creativity that Josef inherits though language. It provides a clue to the strange ending of this evocative book, where powerful realism gives way to a magical flight of fancy. In all, The Doctor’s House is a short but enduring read.
David Bergen’s debut novel, A Year of Lesser, describes a year in the life of Johnny Fehr, a shallow, self-involved salesman. Bergen’s language is gripping; grounded in the immediacy of the present tense and in the impressions of his characters, the novel embraces the harshness, passion, and tragedy of life in the Manitoba town of Lesser. Bergen’s third-person narrative reveals a writer gifted in his ability to translate inner worlds, corporeal and psychological, into memorable and moving prose.
The story revolves around Johnny and his impact on the lives of his wife Charlene and Loraine, a single mother who has become his lover. As Johnny becomes more closely involved with Loraine, the lives of Chris, Loraine’s fourteen-year-old son, and Melody, his girlfriend, weave into Johnny’s story. All of the action takes place against the backdrop of Lesser itself, a place of short-lived secrets with its small-town propensity for gossip and communal knowledge. As a central character, Johnny is difficult to identify with. He is selfish and egoistic, preoccupied with sexual conquest and often—through superficial rites and puerile conceptions of faith—with his own capacity for salvation. Johnny vacillates between "fallen" and "born again" postures: prolonged periods of disillusioned excess and self-pity interspersed with weeks of empty Bible-quoting and sterile, pro forma compassion. Fancying himself "a lover of women," he identifies sex as an avenue to holiness. However, Johnny’s love is too self-involved to comprehend the souls whose bodies he explores; he is barely able to sustain a fulfilling connection with another individual, much less a nexus with divinity. Johnny cherishes women for the simplicity he attributes to them, falling in and out of love, and liking his partners best when they are asleep: voiceless and pliant. His metaphors reduce women to fertile fields or vegetables ripe for consumption.
Johnny is easily the weakest of Bergen’s cast. While the novel explores the possibilities of redemption, that potential seems lost on this rather wooden central figure. At times, in fact, Johnny seems too flat for the book that tells his story. There is no doubt, however, that Bergen can draw compelling and fully realized characters. Charlene, whose consuming sadness leads her to alcoholism and despair; Loraine, who struggles to maintain a loving relationship with her son; even Chris and Melody who struggle to find meaning on the cusp of adulthood: these characters are vividly real and alive. Their most fleeting moments of contact— as in a moving scene where Loraine visits Charlene—exhibit candour and humanity. These moments of connection and affirmation are among the greatest rewards in A Year of Lesser.
The Lesser Blessed is Richard Van Camp’s powerful first novel: a story that renders the pain and joy of growing up in a northern town with rough and poetic eloquence. The novel spans several months in the life of Larry Sole, a Dogrib Indian who lives alone with his mother, struggling to survive adolescence in Fort Simmer, "the STD capital of the Territories." A sensitive outsider, Larry is brought into the "circle" of fighters and drug users after he befriends Johnny Beck, a rebellious and charismatic Métis. His friendship with Johnny also brings him closer to Juliet Hope, the high school "tramp" who inspires Larry with sordid desire and pious reverence: for Larry, she is both a gateway to carnal knowledge and an embodiment of all that is holy. In many ways, Larry is a typical teenager, struggling to hold onto a sense of himself in an often uncaring, and sometimes violent context: a life with little to buffer the troubled worlds of child and adult. He listens to heavy metal, endures and resists the oppression of bullies, and sneaks his mother’s cigarettes. At the same time, however, Larry has been "kissed by the devil" and "sewn into the belly of an animal"; he bears the physical and emotional scars of past experience: wounds he attempts to hide, and memories he struggles to repress.
The story is told in Larry’s voice, related to us through the acute perceptions of a young and shockingly poetic consciousness. Larry doesn’t simply "narrate"; he speaks to the reader in ways that suggest the intimacy of disclosure. Reality and dream interweave even when he speaks to the other characters, astounding and sometimes alarming them. After Larry tells Johnny the Dogrib creation myth, the listener comments not on the tale, but on its teller: "Lare, that’s something. That’s really something. You’re a storyteller, man. Your voice even changed when you talked." Larry’s gift for telling defines the entire novel, suffusing it with youthful energy and startling insight. His words curse and celebrate the world and people around him in terms that are profane and poetic. He speaks to us of the beauty of Juliet Hope, the wondrousness of the Northern landscape, the tyrannies of high school, and the uncontrollable visions that draw him into the past. The horrors of his past are seldom confronted directly; rather, they are rendered obliquely, in the fragmentary idiom of nightmare.
The characters of Van Camp’s novel are brought vividly to life through his narrator’s storytelling; their strengths and imperfections are rendered in a true and generous light. Johnny is no stock hero-rebel; he has his own capacity for weakness and betrayal. An "expert" in the adult world of sex, Johnny is nevertheless obsessed with the "beautiful" aspects of innocence and childhood for which he secretly grieves. Then there is Johnny’s younger brother Donny, a child with a very old soul; he is a vulgar youngster caught on the horns of prematurity, an ironic and isolated trickster haunted by visions of apocalypse. And there is Juliet Hope; labelled the school "whore" by those around her, she too owns unacknowledged depths of complexity and pain.
On the whole, The Lesser Blessed is a gift to its readers, a warm and affirming story of life in a cold place. Told with rich humour and deep compassion, it fuses the travails of human love and conflict into a vision of salvation and light. Like Fagan and Bergen, Van Camp negotiates the interstices of the earthy and the spiritual, and in the shadows where there are no easy answers, he finds and illuminates humanity’s abiding potential for redemption and grace.
- National Anxiety in a New Age by Damon Barta
Books reviewed: Border Songs by Jim Lynch
- Chasing Tales by Stephanie McKenzie
Books reviewed: Tales of an Empty Cabin by Grey Owl and Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie Belaney by Armand Garnet Ruffo
- Whose Canada? by Carole Gerson
Books reviewed: The Museum Called Canada by Sara Angel and Charlotte Gray
- Voices of Hope by Brenda Payne
Books reviewed: How to Paint by Chris Harris and bloodriver woman by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
- La Polysémie de l'altérité by Jorge Calderón
Books reviewed: Altérité et insularité: relations croisées dans les cultures francophones by Alessandra Ferraro, L'Autre en mémoire by Dominique Laporte, and Practiques d l'ici, altérité et identité dans six romans québécois des années 1989-2002 by Svante Lindberg
MLA: Greene, Michael. Intimations of Grace. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 138 - 140)
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