Lost Geography, by Charlotte Bacon

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.

The Lost Highway, by David Adams Richards

I had a difficult time getting into this book, but I stuck with it because I have liked Richards's books in the past. The opening confused me and required several readings before I could move on. Eventually I realised that the book is written in a point of view that is even closer than close third person.

A quick recap of point of view (POV) may be in order. In first person POV the main character narrates the story: “I opened the refrigerator door, but didn’t see anything I wanted to eat.” Rarely used and difficult to sustain is second person POV: “So you go to the store, and you stand there staring at the ready-to-eat display, slavering over the Fettucini Alfredo and roast beef with gravy.” In third person POV the story is told by an anonymous narrator: “Her doctor had put her on a low-fat diet to bring down her cholesterol.” Third person is the most commonly used POV, and there are several variations. In third person omniscient, the narrator knows what is going on in every character’s mind and provides commentary on the action. In third person limited, the narrator sticks with a single character but still summarizes and provides background information; the narrator can also shift between multiple characters (often done, but difficult to do well). In close third person, the narrator knows only what a particular character knows, sees only what that character sees; while describing events through the character’s consciousness; however, the story is told in the narrator’s voice.

Here, Richards takes close third person a step further. Each section of the book is written as though the featured character himself were writing it, so that we get events filtered through his mindset and described in his voice.

The story opens in rural New Brunswick with Burton Tucker, a brain-damaged man who runs a failing convenience store. We experience life as Burton sees it, so no wonder I found the beginning confusing. Bewildered and forgetful as he is, Burton believes that he has sold a winning lottery ticket worth thirteen million dollars to Jim Chapman, a local man whose construction company has gone bankrupt.

Burton mentions this to Alex Chapman, Jim’s middle-aged great-nephew. Initially planning to be a priest, Alex went off to seminary but became disillusioned. At university, he had some success but left just as he was about to receive tenure and returned home. I was dismayed at first by the tirades about corrupt priests and seminarians, phony (but politically correct) professors and students, and ignorant friends and neighbors. However, I finally realised that these are Alex's views. He thinks everyone else is as ineffectual and dishonest as he himself is. At least I hope that’s true. I’d hate to think that these are Richards’s opinions and voice.

Upon his return he lives with his great-uncle. The two Chapmans are locked in an endless battle, and eventually Jim throws Alex out. Living in a shack, mooning over his high school girlfriend who is married, Alex is sure that she still loves him and that the money from the winning lottery ticket would bring her back to him. One of his high school tormentors who has since become a friend, Leo Bourque, gets wind of Alex’s scheme and demands a share. The two clash over right and wrong, predestination and free will, life and death.

Alex reminds me of Wade Whitehouse in Russell Banks's Affliction. Living in a trailer in rural New Hampshire, working as a well-driller, snowplow operator and part-time town cop, Wade sees his life gradually disintegrate even as he tries to turn it around. He is fighting on all fronts: plowing the relentless snow, worrying about money, battling his ex-wife for more time with his daughter. His great chance comes when he believes he has uncovered a web of corruption in his town. Like Alex, he has great schemes and great dreams and can't understand why nothing works out for him.

However, Wade engaged my sympathy in a way that Alex never did. Perhaps this is the danger inherent in forcing the reader to spend so much time in the head of an unpleasant, egotistical, obtuse character whose life is spiralling out of control. Much as I admired Richards's skill in crafting this unusual point of view, I didn't settle down and enjoy myself until we got to Markus Paul, the First Nations policeman with a rational and logical mind, who is investigating a local murder. On the other hand, the relentless darkness and ruination do serve to highlight the rare good and unselfish act.

There is much to like here. The ever-changing relationship betwen Alex and Leo is very well done, full of surprising insight and unexpected turns. And Richards always excels when exploring the effects of poverty and the unforeseen things it can lead you to do.

The Boys in the Trees, by Mary Swan

This remarkable novel is a mystery like no other I’ve read. There is a crime, to be sure, but we know who did it and more or less why. Swan ignores the conventions of the mystery genre and instead explores the effects of the crime on the inhabitants of the small town where it occurred. While moving forward in time linearly for the most part, each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character: the father as a child hiding in a tree, the mother telling of her children’s births, the doctor who treated one of the girls, the playmate of the other, the girls themselves.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of narratives with multiple points of view. Perhaps I am simply becoming a crotchety curmudgeon, preferring the sustained 19th century narratives—my first favorite reading—to the frenetic jump-cutting of some modern novels. And it’s true: I prefer to have only one window open at a time on the computer, and cannot stand the little commercials that have started popping up in the corner of the television screen over the last few years. Perhaps I’m too easily distracted, or too linear a thinker.

I prefer to believe, though, that it’s just a very difficult task, writing multiple points of view, and most writers who try just aren’t up to the challenge. Some, though not all, are successful when alternating chapters between the perspectives of two or three characters. Even then, the stronger narratives employ these changes in succession rather than going back and forth with each chapter. Worst of all is when we jump from one character’s head to another within a single scene.

Here, each chapter stays with a single character. Although I found it a little confusing at first, the quality of writing was such that it was worth making the effort to reorient myself at the beginning of each chapter. Swan uses little imagery, relying instead on the things of this world to take us into the lives of these people living, first in England at the end of the 19th century, and then in a small town in Canada. We inhabit each character, whether it is a little boy sneaking out of the house before dawn and walking through the sleeping town, a woman watching the image appear the first time she develops a photograph, or a man gradually growing more inebriated as he sits over a long dinner with other men of the town trying to make sense of the events that have engulfed them.

Turning the last page, I was startled to realise how invested I had become in these people and their town. Even such short accounts bring out the depth of emotion, the reality of these lives. Together they make up a mosaic reflecting our fractured reality, our distinct perceptions and personal filters. Just as individuals must function within the web of society, so these stories together reveal the cumulative effects of this crime and its aftermath and left me thinking about the lasting effects of a single incident. There are many turning points here, often small events in themselves—decisions made, undeserved hardships endured—that gradually shape these lives. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that we are changed and molded, even our very brain chemistry altered, by the happenings large and small that make up our histories.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

What a fascinating book! Summerscale relates the events leading up to and following a true crime, the murder of a child in Road Hill House in June of 1860. The Road Hill murder captured the public's imagination, as did Jon-Benet Ramsey's murder more recently. During the decade previous to the Road Hill murder, the number of newspapers had multiplied at an astonishing rate, going from 700 in 1855 to 1,100 in 1860. Domestic killings had become popular fodder—even then, apparently, “if it bleeds, it leads”—and the Road Hill murder, with its twists and turns, took over the headlines.

One of the best things about this book is the way it puts the details of the case into the cultural context of Victorian English society. For example, it was only in the 19th century that the home of the nuclear family became a “sacred space”, a secure refuge that should not be violated by public scrutiny or by government aggression. Every home a castle, in other words. One newspaper of the time even compared this tradition to a castle’s moat. I wonder if this cultural change could be related to the concurrent proliferation of newspapers with their daily fare of sex and violence.

Among others, Charles Dickens was fascinated by the case. He believed, as did the local police and a majority of the public, that Samuel Kent, the father, and Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid, were responsible. The popular scenario held that three-year-old Saville must have woken in the night to see the two engaged in, er, inappropriate behavior, and was killed to keep him from telling anyone.

Summerscale enables us to follow the case along with the police and public. She gives us the clues, the interviews, the photographs of the major players, extracts of newspaper articles. She includes drawings of the layout of the house and yard, just as the papers of the day did, exposing that private space and the family’s private actions to public view. We learn about the history of the Kents, that the second Mrs. Kent, Saville’s mother, had been governess to her four stepchildren during Mr. Kent’s first marriage, to a woman said to be insane. Jane Eyre had been published 13 years earlier, in 1847.

The man named to investigate the murder was Jack Whicher, one of the eight men selected for the first detective unit to be set up in England. These men, making up their methods as they went along, thrilled the public with their exploits and became the models for Wilkie Collins's Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone and Dickens’s Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Whicher himself was well-known as a quiet, shrewd, and successful detective. He later played a significant role in the case of the Tichborne Claimant.

Assigned to the case over two weeks after the murder, Whicher found himself at odds with the local police. Not only did they refuse to cooperate with the London detective, but during the intervening weeks, they had lost important clues and allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by the Kent family. For example, on the night after the murder’s discovery, the policemen assigned to stay in Road Hill House and prevent the family from tampering with clues spent the night locked in the kitchen by Mr. Kent, a fact they later tried to cover up.

Whicher’s investigation was also hampered by public pressure when he arrested someone other than the nursemaid, Gough, for the crime. Knowing who has committed a crime and proving it are two different things, of course, and this crime, like so many in our day, was tried not only in the courtroom but in the press and the pubs and the breakfast rooms. Summerscale’s book gives us a resolution of sorts, but doubts remain as to what really happened on that June night.

The Road Hill murder inspired many early English detective stories: The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Yonge's The Trial. Only a few years earlier, in 1849, the first English detective story had appeared, so the genre was still in its infancy. I highly recommend this true story of the origins of the English detective story.

Playlist 2008

Every year I collect the songs I’ve been listening to over and over in a playlist. Here is this year’s:

Working Class Hero, John Lennon
Working Poor, David Francey
Workhouse Boy, Sweet Felons All
Pretty Polly, Orange Line Special
Long Black Veil, The Band
Hard Steel Mill, David Francey
A Thousand Miles, David Francey
Long Way Home, David Francey
Hills/Mulqueen's, Nightingale
Regain/Psalm of Life/Plant un Chou, Nightingale
The Waiting Game/Raze, Nightingale
La Belle Rose, Nightingale
Three Pieces By O'Carolan, John Renbourn
The Lady and the Unicorn, John Renbourn
William Taylor, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
Brigg Fair, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
The Maid of the Mill, Jinky Wells
The Pleasant Month Of May, Sam Larner
John Barleycorn, Tim Radford
The Painful Plough, Finest Kind
The Orphan/Through the Grapevine, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
Honeysuckle Cottage, Band Of Friends
Whiskey Before Dinner, Band Of Friends
Farewell to Whiskey, Rhythm Rollers
Precious Staggering Blues, Precious Bryant
A Song For Sheryl/David's Air/Rorate Coeli/I Long For Thy Virginitie, Waverley Station
Waiting For Jim, Waverley Station
Calum Sgaire, Alasdair Fraser
A New Beginning, Bare Necessities
The Star Of The County Down, Walt Michael & Company
John Of Dreams, Walt Michael & Company
Fanny Power, Walt Michael & Company
Ashokan Farewell, Walt Michael & Company
Botany Bay, Kate Rusby
Urge for Going, Tom Rush
Moon On The Water, Aengus Finnan
The Black Isle, Becky Tracy