Looking Back

  • Rudy Wiebe
    Come Back. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Claire Holden Rothman
    My October. Penguin Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • George Bowering
    Mirror on the Floor. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder

George Bowering’s first novel, Mirror on the Floor, has been reissued by Anvil Press as part of their “Lost BC Literature” series. Originally published in 1967, the novel vividly evokes a quasi-bohemian student culture that will be recognizable to anyone over the age of 30. Released from the drunk tank after a night of drinking, fighting, and philosophizing in a seedy bar, the protagonist, grad student Bobby Small, becomes entranced by Andrea, a disturbed but strangely compelling young woman. The novel alternates between Bobby’s narration of their complicated interactions, flashbacks to Andrea’s troubled childhood, and transcripts of audio tapes about herself that Andrea may be making for Bobby. As their relationship unfolds, Bobby seeks understanding, while Andrea’s Oedipal family drama works towards its inevitable violent conclusion.

Much of Bobby’s narration, conversational and detailed, is the voice of someone who thinks he already knows everything, as in this description of the run-down bar at the novel’s opening:

Mickey Chang’s is the last place; you come there when you’re eighteen years old and in Vancouver for the first time and you probably get away, or you come there when you’re an old man forty-five years and no chance of dying more than four blocks away from the place with the dirty red neon rooster hanging crooked over the door, waiting to fall on a head and kill someone, anyone.

By the novel’s end, though, his inability to explain away Andrea’s actions renders him silent: “I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t stupid, so I stopped thinking.” While the female characters are stereotypical, the novel’s keen details and dead-on representation of 20-something angst makes it enjoyable.

Rudy Wiebe’s most recent novel, Come Back, returns to his first one, picking up the character Hal from Peace Shall Destroy Many and positioning him as a retired professor who has recently lost his wife. Traumatized by his son Gabriel’s suicide 25 years earlier, and also grieving for his wife, Hal thinks he sees his long-dead son on the street and runs after him into traffic, precipitating accidents of all kinds. Hal freezes at the thought of Gabriel’s death, just as his house remains exactly as it was when his wife died. The novel traces his transition from paralysis to engagement, as he finally opens the boxes that contain mementos from his son’s life and funeral.

A significant portion of the novel is a transcription of Gabriel’s journal, tracing his erotic obsession with Ailsa, a thirteen-year-old girl who is the daughter of family friends. Hal reads the journal as an extended suicide note, seeking to make sense of Gabriel’s death at the same time as he searches for a living son in the ravines of Edmonton. The novel hints at the selfishness of Hal’s grief: his self-protective repression has effectively prevented him from connecting with or comforting his remaining family. Some of this self-centredness remains, however, as Hal refuses to confront the consequences of his dash into traffic, which may have caused serious injury to a stranger. The accident also functions to focus his underlying guilt and fear that he may be in some way responsible for his son’s death, as he tries to finish reading the journals before the police arrive at his door.

The novel does not always hang together—there are loose ends in the narrative, and the characters are not developed enough for their relationships to seem nuanced. The portrayal of Ailsa as a seductive child is problematic at points. Hal may want to blame her for Gabriel’s deterioration, but readers may wonder if the novel as a whole suggests that as well. Gabriel’s journal makes for difficult reading—as a record of his obsessions, it loops back and forth through the same materials. The questions Hal has about Gabriel’s death are unanswerable, and the novel leaves him waiting both for Gabriel and for consolation.

My October by Claire Holden Rothman takes the 1968 kidnapping of James Cross as a frame to explore the dynamics of present-day Quebec. The marriage between Luc Levesque, a novelist, and Hannah, his English translator, is an unlikely one: Luc is an outspoken separatist and francophone, while Hannah’s father served as a special prosecutor following the October Crisis. Now Hugo, their teenage son, has been discovered at school with a gun. This is a lot of weight for the characters to carry, and the novel does not quite succeed in giving them depth or nuance. The marriage frays, as does the relationship between parents and child, but most things are resolved in the end.



This review “Looking Back” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 112-113.

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