WITH THIS COLUMN I END MY YEAR'S stint as Books in Canada's first-novels reviewer, passing the mantle to a new hand. Already I've begun to imagine reading -- for pure enjoyment -- second, or even third novels, guides to viticulture, biographies of 19th-century politicians. Yet the year brought me considerable reading pleasure and many fine books. Two of them, Russell Smith's How Insensitive and Donna McFarlane's Division of Surgery, were short-listed for the 1994 Governor General's Award for Fiction. Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy and Steve Weiner's The Museum of Love won nominations for the Giller Prize.
I felt a proprietary pride at their successes, as if the authors were rookies making it in the big leagues, but of course many first novelists are far from neophytes, with already well-established reputations in other genres. There are, on the other hand, writers who have succeeded in producing remarkable books their first time out. (A good publisher is an invaluable aid in this feat.) One such novel is Zachary's Gold: Being a Recounting of Certain Remarkable Events in the Barkersville Goldfields, 1864 (Oolichan, 280 pages, $14.95 paper) by Stan Krumm. His narrator, Zachary Beddoes, hailing originally from New Hampshire, has left behind an unsatisfying career as a Pinkerton man to try his luck in the B.C. goldfields. Krumm, a goldsmith as well as a gifted writer, takes us through the young man's journey up the coast, his first baffled days in the gold town of Barkersville, and his miseries and ambivalence once he stakes his claim. Life now provides him humbling opportunities to reflect on his defects of character: "I drank deeply from a rain barrel on the street, sharing it with a horse who surveyed my condition with sombre disapproval," he writes after a night of unwise revelry.
Hearing an account of a gold robbery on another trip into Barkersville, he realizes he knows who did it. His plan to track down the miscreant for reward is soon complicated by greed, however. To get out the booty without being hanged, he must enlist the cooperation of the Chinese prospector on a neighbouring claim. Beddoes's moral and physical struggles are entirely convincing, and the uneasy partners are a fascinating study in personalities and communication. Krumm exerts a nice control over plot, pacing, and tone. It's a memorable adventure tale, thoroughly researched, vividly imagined, and beautifully produced.
Lust for gold also puts the terror in Northwest Terrorstories (Indelible Publishing, 452 pages, $6.99 paper) by the Toronto filmmaker Liam Kiernan, but that's the only link between the two books. The mounting carnage in Northwest Terrorstories quickly reduces Zach Beddoes's regrettable homicides to insignificance. The setting is a mining prison camp in the Independent Aboriginal Republic at the turn of the millennium. Prisoners from the south serve their sentences doing hard labour in the mine; Inuit and whites work side by side in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and loathing. Then a fabulous seam of gold is uncovered in the mine; once word gets out, "the tundra will look like Swiss cheese. "The Inuit (who "need a goldrush here like they need single-malt whisky by the skid-load") set out to bury the treasure under a giant mine catastrophe. Meanwhile in a boardroom far away in beautiful downtown Ottawa, the ruthless mine owner and his half-Inuit son-in-law Gaar hear the news. Gaar, a rising young lawyer and grandson of a great shaman, is despatched to the disaster site. People start changing into ravens and polar bears and the body count keeps rising. Northwest Terrorstories looks, sounds, and smells like a thriller, and there is plenty of ingenuity and inventiveness here. But the infelicities of editing by spell-check, combined with the cacophony of shrieks and curses accompanying the slaughter, make it almost unreadable.
Another ostensible thriller, L. J. Middleton's Roads to Nowhere (Henlyn, 576 pages, $16.95 paper) is daunting in size, strident in cover copy, and handsomely produced (presumably by Middleton's own publishing company). Though there are occasional unwarranted shifts in point of view, the main focus is that of Dr. Jim Arthur, like the author himself a former doctor in the Canadian military, who takes on the challenge of setting up a program of preventive medicine in rural Zambia. Daily he deals with appalling malnutrition and disease, struggling not to succumb to the cynical brutality of the old hands. Corruption, complicated by incompetence, abounds: black marketeering in game, children, and body parts, poaching to supplement the salaries of government officials. The project manager, Cyril Roberts, is highly valued in Ottawa for his ability to make the reports look "as if we were actually operating smoothly." Jim suspects he's involved in dark dealings, and furthermore finds his wife, Beulah, an interfering, quasi-feminist old cow. At heart Jim believes all the ills could be cured by such unfashionable qualities as discipline, integrity, and hard work. The authenticity of Roads to Nowhere is as obvious as its didacticism. The medical stories are vivid and the tale begins in time to exert a horrifying fascination. It's a book that could only benefit by vigorous pruning, but I doubt that Middleton is much interested in literary kudos. He had something to say that needed to be said, and he has said it loud and clear.
Mosaic Press, with offices in Oakville, Buffalo, and London, England, has a publishing program devoted to the development of new fiction, and in the past year has produced such respectable titles as Antanas Sileika's Dinner at the End of the World. Two recent ones, however, are less than impressive. Stage Lights (199 pages, $14.95 paper) is the story of a young dancer in the Dominion Ballet Company, an obvious fictionalization of the National Ballet of Canada in which its author, Katerina Evanova, was once a dancer. But no ballet director would have let Evanova go out on a stage with her tutu unzipped and shoe ribbons trailing; Mosaic has sent her novel into the world half-punctuated and spotted with innumerable typographical faux pas as gauche as "your" for "you're." Here again a brisk trip through the spell-checker seems to have been all the editorial direction Evanova got: her narrative is repetitive, its chronology often laboured and confusing, the dialogue often risibly mechanical.
The book does give a vivid sense of the life of a dancer on tour -- dusty stages and decrepit theatres, romantic liaisons, the thrill of a debut in a new role. Romana Petrova, the central character, survives a broken heart over her jilting by her dancing partner, Gino, and the death of her father, by single-minded dedication to her art. Will Romana find true love again? Will she fulfil her dreams and ambitions, or let love drag her down? Unfortunately, such are the shortcomings of Stage Lights that the reader doesn't care to know the answer to these questions.
The Next Margaret (Mosaic, 127 pages, $12.95 paper), by Janice MacDonald Mant, is an academic mystery, though little about the book's format signals its genre. Mant, a mystery reviewer for the Edmonton Star, has created a bright narrative voice in her fledgling sleuth Randy Craig, a master's student at the University of Alberta. Looking for a challenging thesis topic, Randy settles on a study of Margaret Ahlers, a brilliant, enigmatic Canadian writer whose second novel, Two for Joy, reads like "Pynchon and Thurber and Stoppard and Calvino all rolled into one." The biggest mystery here is why the Canadian literary world isn't beating a path to this paragon's door; Randy seems to have been the only one to discover that Abler isn't doing any author's tours.
Funny and gutsy though she is, Randy isn't smart enough to be convincing. Her thesis adviser, Dr. Hilary Quinn, is so unhelpful that her pedagogy verges on pathology; anyone but Randy would have gone straight to the dean, or to the truth. Luckily, an attractive fellow grad student named Guy comes to Randy's aid and helps her break into Dr. Quinn's computer files. The relationship between the two students, curiously lacking any real erotic tension, is the book's second biggest mystery. So is Guy gay? Or is Randy? A sequel is in the works.
Minor Assumptions (Exile Editions, 144 pages, $16.95 paper), by Elizabeth Ukrainetz, is a much more sophisticated production. Its complex narrative traces the metamorphosis of a Catholic schoolgirl, the youngest in a close family, into a filthy grotesque living on the Toronto streets. The family is sporadically shaken by isolated, startling episodes of violence by Hermine's father. When her precocious older sister Maissa becomes interested in boys, a monster takes over the house. The family breaks down. Hen-nine is haunted by a feeling of gaps opening in her mind. A friendship with a boy at school offers refuge and support; when this too is shattered, she runs away. Out west she holds down an office job and moves in with a lover, but the hole in her brain still lurks, in time blurring the borders between her thoughts and others, and making her "scared of mostly everything."
Years later in Toronto a man watches a rag-swaddled figure in McDonald's and asks, "Are you my sister?" Is he her brother? Perhaps not, but for Hermine it's the start of a joumey. "The face of salvation keeps changing," she tells herself. There are, sadly, no guarantees that it will come. Ukrainetz has already published a collection of stories; in her first novel, she weaves acutely realized childhood episodes with surreal, disturbing visions of present hells. Both the subject matter and the intensity of the imagery are reminiscent at times of Barbara Gowdy's Falling Angels, but this talented young voice is very much Ukrainetz's own.
In The Madness of History (Exile Editions, 143 pages, $16.95 paper), by N. J. Dodic, Mara Rustic's childhood in the late '60s in Toronto seems a settled one, with two loving parents and a baby brother. But sharply realized fragments of memory suggest stresses in the domestic fabric; this finally tears as Mara's mother explodes at a disastrous birthday party and her father flees back to Yugoslavia with his infant son. A decade later Mara is in high school, her mother has died, and an uncle shows up mysteriously from Belgrade to provide for her. The book's final section takes her to Yugoslavia, where she finds that her father is dead and her brother is in a coma, both victims of a brutal war. The writing, though uneven, is sophisticated and intelligent. Dodic's title is apt: in the story he tells, things happen, and the individual can only react with stoicism and insouciance.