Richly nuanced and subtle

2012-10-03 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Canada

Richard Ford

Bloomsbury

 

FIZZLING with the fictional panache that saw him win both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his earlier novel, Independence Day, author Richard Ford’s latest offering, Canada, is set in the sixties and presents a richly nuanced portrait of a young boy whose life is irrevocably changed by an awful family calamity.

The narrator of the story is Dell Parsons who, when the novel opens, is a 15-year-old boy living with his twin sister, Berner, and parents in the small, rural town of Great Falls, Montana. Despite their shared birth date, Dell and Berner are completely diverse in temperament and it is unclear at first whether they even like each other.

Their parents, too, have little in common. Bev, the father, is tall, handsome and outgoing — an ex-airman forever wanting to please anyone who comes in range. Neeva, the mother, is tiny, introverted, alienated and artistic. In short, it is a marriage that seems destined to end up badly, which is indeed what happens.

When an illegal business deal suddenly goes sour, leaving him owing a lot of money to some rather dodgy people, Bev decides, on an impulse, to rob a bank. He manages to persuade a reluctant Neeva to act as his accomplice and getaway driver. The plan proves to be both ill-conceived and badly thought out. The inevitable happens — the unlikely pair of bank robbers are quickly tracked down, arrested and carted off to jail.

Determined that she does not want her two children to become wards of the state, Neeva manages to get a friend to agree to take them across the border into Canada, where they will be beyond the reach of the law. Before this can happen, though, Berner, the more rebellious of the twins, decides to cut her losses and runs away.

The more compliant Dell accepts his fate and finds himself dumped in the remote, prairie town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, where he is obliged to work long, exhausting hours in the local hotel, which is run by another expatriate American.

Stuck out in the wilds, it’s a lonely and confusing life for the naturally quiet and uncommunicative youth. The sense of exile from ordinary pleasures is brilliantly evoked and Dell finds that even the lifeline held out by Arthur Remlinger — a handsome, seemingly civilised man with a love of literature — comes with strings attached, for he also harbours a few dark secrets and has some unanswered questions from his past.

Despite his superficial concern for his young ward, the reader senses danger ahead and this eventually arrives in the form of two supposed goose hunters from the United States.

Combining psychological subtlety, narrative tension and an overwhelming sense of atmosphere, the novel turns an unflinching gaze on its subject matter, brilliantly evoking Dell’s sense of isolation and abandonment. Ford excels at charting connections: between members of a family, the past and the present, individuals and the era they inhabit.

Although the book ends in a way that is briefly heartening, it’s an unsettling story which makes you only too aware of the transitiveness and precariousness of comfortable everyday existence.

 

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