Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies is a Canadian author best known for his four trilogies – the Salterton Trilogy, the Deptford Trilogy, the Cornish Trilogy and the unfinished Toronto Trilogy. As someone completely new to Davies’ work it was hard to know where to start, but as it didn’t seem necessary to read these trilogies in any particular order, I decided to begin with the one that sounded most appealing to me, the Deptford Trilogy, of which Fifth Business is the first book. I think it was a good choice! I actually started to read it last August for a reading week hosted by Lory, but got distracted during a house move and didn’t go back to it until just after New Year, when I was able to give it the attention it deserved.

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstable (later renamed Dunstan) Ramsay in the form of a long letter written to the headmaster of the school from which he is retiring, having taught there for many years. In the letter, he looks back on his life, beginning in 1908 when, as a boy growing up in the small Canadian town of Deptford, an incident occurs that will shape his future: Percy Boyd Staunton, his friend and rival, throws a snowball containing a stone; Dunstan – the intended target – jumps aside; and instead the snowball hits a pregnant woman, who goes into premature labour with the shock. This incident means nothing to Percy, but it will haunt Dunstan for the rest of his life.

Many of the things that happen to Dunstan from this point on – the sort of man he becomes, the interests he develops, the career path he follows and the relationships he forms – could be traced back to the day of the snowball. His life-long obsession with the study of saints, for example, comes about because of his feelings of guilt and responsibility towards the pregnant woman, Mrs Dempster, and her son, Paul, the baby born prematurely. He convinces himself that she is a saint who has performed miracles, including saving his life when he is wounded at Passchendaele during the First World War. Illusions, deceptions and the unexplained are important themes running throughout the book, not just in the form of miracles but also magic tricks, conjuring and fortune telling.

I think this is the sort of book that probably needs to be read more than once to be able to fully appreciate all the different layers and ideas it contains. I’m not sure I enjoyed the book enough to want to read it again (although I did like it very much), but I’m certainly interested in reading the other two parts of the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Finally, if you are wondering about the title of the novel, it describes the role Dunstable/Dunstan Ramsay plays throughout his life and throughout the story:

“And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero’s birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody’s death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out.”

Perdita by Hilary Scharper

I have never been to the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, but reading Hilary Scharper’s Perdita has made me want to add it to my list of places to visit. The author has described her novel as ‘eco-gothic’, which I think refers to elements of nature almost taking the role of characters in the story (think of the fog in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House or the moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) and she certainly does bring the beauty and atmosphere of her Canadian setting to life in Perdita.

The novel opens with Garth Hellyer of the Longevity Project collecting information on some of Canada’s oldest people. Having heard about some remarkable claims made by a woman called Marged Brice, Garth is visiting her in her nursing home in the hope of discovering the truth. Marged insists that she is 134 years old, but surely that can’t be right? Garth is cynical, but when Marged tells him that she is ready to die but can’t because of a mysterious presence known as ‘Perdita’ holding her back, he is intrigued enough to agree to hear her story.

Marged gives Garth some of her old journals, which he takes home to read, and through these the story of Marged’s life unfolds. In 1897, when her diaries begin, she is a young woman of nineteen living at Cape Prius on the Bruce Peninsula where her father is working as the lighthouse keeper. It can be a lonely place in the winter but comes alive in the summer when visitors begin to arrive. Among the summer visitors are the Stewarts, a wealthy family with two sons, one of whom – George – is a talented painter. With her own interest in art, Marged finds herself drawn to George, but will he ever return her feelings? And anyway, would Marged ever be able to leave the landscape she loves so much – the landscape which has become such an integral part of her life?

Well, circumstances dictate that Marged does have to leave her beloved bay behind, at least for a short period, while she spends some time in Toronto with her mother. By the time she returns she has changed and grown as a person; her world has widened, she has met different people – including Andrew Reid, a young doctor – and she has experienced things she would never have been exposed to on the peninsula. The rest of the novel follows the ups and downs of Marged’s relationships with George, with Andrew and with her environment, as well as exploring the presence of Perdita and who or what she really is. We also follow Garth in the modern day as he is reunited with an old friend, Clare, who helps him to make sense of Marged’s claims.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I preferred the historical storyline to the present day one. It’s not very often that I would say the opposite! Marged’s story was much more compelling, full of life and passion and emotion; Garth’s story, in comparison, felt as though it had been created just because a framing narrative was needed. He and Clare didn’t feel like real, fully-developed people to me and every time we returned to their storyline, I just wanted to get back to Marged and her diaries.

I liked the Perdita and longevity aspects of the story, which bring in some elements of mythology and some literary allusions, but I was less convinced by the blending of the real and the supernatural. For me, Perdita was a collection of intriguing ideas that, as a whole, I couldn’t quite manage to love. It seems to be Hilary Scharper’s only novel (although she has written a book of short stories on a very different subject) but if she writes another in the ‘eco-gothic’ genre, I would probably be interested in reading it.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham – #1944Club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs for which bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. This time the year is 1944 – an interesting one, as not only are there lots of intriguing books to choose from, but it’s also the first wartime year to be featured. I had a few options on my TBR and decided to start with this one, Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, which has been reissued by Persephone.

The novel is set in Canada during World War II and, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser, explores some of the prejudices, inequalities and divisions which existed at that time. Erica is a twenty-eight-year-old journalist working for the Montreal Post, while Marc is a lawyer in his early thirties. The two are immediately drawn to each other when they meet at a cocktail party – it’s literally love at first sight and Erica is sure her parents will like him too. But when she attempts to introduce him to her father, Charles, she is horrified and embarrassed when Charles refuses to even look at Marc, let alone speak to him.

Erica struggles to understand her father’s reaction, but Marc is not at all surprised. The Reisers are a Jewish family whereas the Drakes are English-Canadians and these two groups – along with another major group in Montreal society, the French-Canadians – simply don’t mix with each other. However, Erica’s brother has recently married a French-Canadian and despite Charles Drake’s initial disapproval, he has accepted Tony and Madeleine’s relationship. Erica is sure that, in time, he will come to accept Marc too. To her disappointment and frustration, though, her parents don’t want to get to know Marc and aren’t interested in what he is like as a person – all that matters is that he is a Jew. Charles explains that he doesn’t want “a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives”.

Despite having grown up in Montreal, Erica has never given much thought to the level of division in society as it’s not something which has ever affected her directly. Marc, on the other hand, is under no illusions; he has been encountering attitudes like Charles Drake’s all his life and he knows exactly what he and Erica can expect if they get married. He tries to make Erica see what their lives would be like, but she is determined to stand by him no matter what.

Marc is very likeable from the beginning, which makes Charles’ attitude towards him all the more upsetting, while Erica is also easy to like and admire. Although we do see things occasionally from Marc’s point of view, it is through Erica’s eyes that most of the story unfolds and Erica who has the most to learn. Her relationship with her father is as much a part of the story as her relationship with Marc; she has always considered him a friend as well as a father and so it comes as a shock to her to find that he is so determined to oppose her wishes. At the same time, she becomes uncomfortably aware that she herself has prejudices of her own.

Earth and High Heaven is a fascinating novel; as so much of the story consists of various characters discussing their views on racism, prejudice and intolerance, it could easily have felt like nothing more than a polemic, but that never happens, which I think is largely due to the two main characters being so appealing and sympathetic. I cared about both of them from their first meeting in the opening chapter and I felt that the issues explored throughout the story arose naturally from the situations in which they found themselves.

This was a great read for the 1944 Club – and one which is still important and relevant today. I loved following Marc and Erica through all their ordeals, hoping and wondering whether they would find a way to be together in the end.

~

I should have another 1944 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few reviews I have previously posted of books published in that year:

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
Towards Zero by Agatha Christie
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

A Place Called Winter There really is a place called Winter; it’s in Saskatchewan, Canada, and at the time when Patrick Gale’s novel is set, it’s a small, newly-established settlement just off the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Winter is home to the fictional Harry Cane, a character based on the author’s own great-grandfather, but how did such a quiet, gentle and seemingly conventional Englishman end up in so harsh and remote a place? A Place Called Winter is Harry’s story, explaining exactly what the circumstances were which brought him to Canada, and what happened to him after he arrived there.

At the beginning of the novel, Harry is a shy, stammering young man living in Edwardian London. Doing what is expected of him, he gets married, and although he has no real love or passion for his wife, it’s not an unhappy marriage and they have a child together. Things start to go wrong for Harry when he falls in love with a man and is forced to leave the country to escape the resulting scandal. Given the opportunity to farm some land in Canada, Harry begins to build a new life for himself alone in a place called Winter.

Harry’s experiences in Canada are a mixture of good and bad. The challenging environment in which he finds himself requires skills he doesn’t possess and must learn quickly if he is to survive in the wilderness. With the help of some new friends, Harry starts to grow in strength and knowledge, but not everyone he meets is quite so pleasant and the behaviour of the villainous Troels Munck poses an obstacle which must be overcome before he has a chance of finding true happiness.

I found this a very moving and poignant novel, as well as a beautifully written one. I couldn’t help comparing it to Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer which I had read just a few weeks earlier. The two books have some similar themes, most notably a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality within the confines of early 20th century society, but I thought this novel had a warmth which the other lacked; Gale really engaged my emotions and made me care about his characters in a way that Galgut didn’t.

A Place Called Winter is my first book read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist and I hope the others on the list will be as good as this one. I haven’t read any of Patrick Gale’s other novels and I understand that he doesn’t usually write historical fiction, but I was very impressed with his writing and would be interested in trying more of his work.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?

Touch by Alexi Zentner

In Touch, the debut novel by Alexi Zentner, we follow the story of three generations of one family who live and work in Sawgamet, a small Canadian mining and logging town. Our narrator, Stephen, has just returned to Sawgamet after a long absence because his mother is dying. Back in his childhood home Stephen becomes lost in memories – and shares some of those memories with the reader. Foremost in Stephen’s thoughts is the day his grandfather, Jeannot, came back to the town after disappearing for many years and announced that he had come to “raise the dead”.

With tales of sea witches and creatures that live in the forest, dogs that sing and golden caribou, the line between fantasy and reality often becomes blurred. I’m not always a fan of magical realism but it is done perfectly here, and so is the non-linear narrative which moves seamlessly between past and present.

Sawgamet is one of the most vivid settings I’ve encountered in a book for a long time. I could picture Jeannot’s cabin and mill, the miners panning for gold in the river, the suffocating blankets of snow that buried the landscape during the long cold winters. Enchanting and magical one minute, dark and threatening the next, the atmosphere Zentner created was wonderful. His writing is beautiful and elegant and there are some haunting images that have stayed in my mind even after finishing the book.

As a debut novel I thought Touch was hugely impressive and I’ll certainly be looking out for more work by this author in the future.