The Recompense of Memory
Reviewed by Wendy Roy
Claire Mulligan’s first novel is a complex and evocative exploration of the repayment of ethical debts and the power of human memory in forming personal identity. Set in British Columbia during the Cariboo gold rush of 1863, The Reckoning of Boston Jim presents three characters whose lives become inextricably intertwined through a brief meeting that includes a relatively small act of kindness and generosity. A lone trapper and trader who goes by the name Boston Jim has his view of the world as harsh, indifferent, and full of self-interest shaken when voluble lower-class English immigrant Dora Timmons finds a pouch containing 126 pounds and ten shillings in English money that he has lost on Cowichan Bay, and returns it to him. Jim finds her decency so unaccustomed and unaccountable that he upturns the bleak order of his life to find a suitable method of recompense. He rehearses and rejects various possible ways of evening the score, until he at last becomes convinced that the only worthy gift is the safe return of Dora’s common-law husband, English remittance man Eugene Augustus Hume, who has set out for the goldfields of the Cariboo.
Mulligan’s descriptive prose works together with the complex structure of the novel to bring to life these three characters, along with a multitude of other secondary characters, some of whom can also be found in British Columbia’s history books. Most of the novel is narrated in third person, but the focus of the chapters shifts between the two male characters—the taciturn Boston Jim as he struggles to find a way to pay his debt, and the self-deceiving Eugene as he becomes more and more mired in the consequences of his own shallowness, naivety, and criminal stupidity. Until the epilogue, narrated in Dora’s first-person voice, she is present mostly in the two men’s memories. The rosy and often fuzzy glow of Eugene’s recollected sexual passion contrasts with the clarity of Jim’s ability to recall the exact words with which Dora has, on the one afternoon they met, poured out her life story.
The novel includes passages of magic realism, evoked by the Aboriginal women who have briefly been part of Jim’s life but also by Dora herself, whose memories Jim comes to inhabit. Her story mingles with his because Jim’s curse—and as curse it is more and more clearly defined—is that he can remember every word that he has heard, every person and thing that he has seen, and every act that he and others have committed since he washed up on the shores of Vancouver Island as a shipwrecked six-year-old child. What came before he cannot remember, except that the now-dead man on whose ship he stowed away took his revenge, and ensured his own place in the historical record by carving his name and place of origin on the boy’s chest. The boy does not know his own name or hometown, but others assume he is Jim Milroy of Boston from the identifying marks written indelibly in blood and the scar tissue on his body. His frightening lack of personal identity is evident twenty-five years later in his curiously elliptical speech which, the reader gradually comes to realize, lacks not only metaphor but also the words “I” and “me.”
The reckoning on which Jim embarks seems out of all proportion to the minor act that provoked it. His life story as it gradually unfolds, however, filled as it is with violence and tragedy punctuated by only a few acts of caring and kindness, eventually clarifies the value of the money pouch to Jim in the complex emotions and memories it evokes. As Jim reflects on this value, he comes to the realization that “all his fine exchanges cannot balance his poor ones.” What happens to him as he pursues Eugene to Barkerville thus becomes his own personal weighing of the good and evil deeds that he has both experienced from others and committed himself. Mulligan’s book leaves readers with despair at its representation of human greed and cruelty and simultaneous hope through its rich evocation of time, place, and the force of human character.
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MLA: Mulligan, Claire and Roy, Wendy. The Recompense of Memory. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #198 (Autumn 2008), Canada and Its Discontents. (pg. 152 - 153)
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