A good corrective to last week's Lost Highway with its almost-too-close-for-comfort point of view. Here, the point of view is about as remote as you can get and still be close third person (i.e., following a particular character). The tone is distant and impersonal, as though the events were being observed from a high mountaintop.
Each of the four sections of the book features a different set of people, all from the same family. The first part, set in Saskatchewan, covers twenty years in lives of Margaret and Davis, starting from their meeting in 1933. Davis has just emigrated from Scotland and is working his way across Canada. In Regina, he falls ill and meets Margaret, who is a nurse in the town's small clinic. Although she grew up on a farm and he in a fishing family, they share a love of books and language. Their meeting changes their lives as both let go of their dreams and settle down on a farm. We alternate between the two seamlessly as their relationship and marriage mature.
The second part follows their daughter, Hilda, as she moves from Saskatchewan to Toronto. Hilda's daughter, Danielle, is the focus of the third part, which covers her childhood in Toronto and young adulthood in Paris. Then the focus shifts to Osman, a man she meets there who is half Turkish and half English. The fourth and last part follows Sophie and Sasha, Danielle's children.
Each part is self-contained. While some of the distance comes from the tone of the book, it is also a result of these separate novelettes. We move fairly quickly through time and space: the book covers the years from 1933 to 1991 and shifts from Regina to Toronto to Paris to London, back to Paris and then to New York.
I felt that I did not have the leisure to get to know the characters the way I would have liked, but the overview approach has its advantages. I remember liking Western Civ in college. At least a dozen times in each hour-long lecture, our professor would say, “And now we see on the horizon . . . “ The course, though superficial in many ways, gave me an overall timeline, a structure in which to fit my later, more in-depth readings.
Similarly, this book, by covering four generations in a little over 250 pages gives a sense of what is gained and lost by a family's multiple emigrations that complements the more in-depth explorations of the emigrant experience by authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Jhumpa Lahiri. Although I always find it a little sad to read a compressed version of someone’s life—I feel that so much of what made that life worthwhile is missing, and death comes so soon—I enjoyed this book.