Angel Falls

by Tim Wynveen,
288 pages,
ISBN: 1550138715

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"What's important, especially in troubled times, is that we fashion a story, no matter how painful, that makes sense of our lives, a family testament that pushes back the darkness even a little and provides a guide for those who follow," says Benoni Van Buskierke, the narrator of Tim Wynveen's exceptional Angel Falls (Key Porter, 268 pages, $19.95 trade paper). It is precisely this that Ben attempts to do.

The term "dysfunctional" is far too mild a term to describe Ben's bizarre and troubled family. Parents who both eventually commit suicide, a father never quite recovering from the Second World War, a mother scarred irrevocably by her tormented childhood. Two sets of grandparents with their own demons, the biggest belonging to Ben's maternal grandfather, Lementeur the Magnificent, a politician and a magician, whose personality is his greatest power.

Ben spends his first twelve years in a fictitious southern Ontario town named Wilbury, where his only friend, Guenther, has a family that rivals Ben's in strangeness. It is no wonder the boys distance themselves from their environment, and see themselves as "aliens" trying to find meaning in their lives by poring over Sir James Frazer's renowned anthropological treatise The Golden Bough. They decide, in fact, that someday they are going to write about their own time and culture and call their work The Platinum Bough.

Wynveen's use of Frazer is one of the most interesting aspects of Angel Falls; it provides an allusive spine, as it were, on which the story is fleshed. And, as is the case with most effective allusions, readers don't necessarily have to be familiar with the source in order to enjoy the book; it simply adds an extra dimension if they are.

Guenther and Ben endure their situations by becoming archivists of their families, anthropologists of their own worlds. As Guenther says: "We all have a primitive culture, Onneb. It's called the family! The myths, the rituals, the magic. It's all there. Check it out." And Ben continues to do so, long after he's left Wilbury, survived life with his grandfather in Angel Falls, and moved to Toronto to become a musician. However, he grows to realize that although books such as The Golden Bough are useful for "putting everything into context", they are in some ways "pretenders to the throne". We have to tell our own stories.

It is Wynveen's notable accomplishment that he succeeds not only in holding the reader right to the end of Ben's tragic story but even manages to introduce a hopeful note into what is otherwise a relentlessly dark vision: by finding the courage to understand our family histories, we don't necessarily have to repeat them.


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