The Monkey Puzzle Tree

by Elizabeth Nickson,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0394280687

The Ocean Tree

by David Andrus,
184 pages,
ISBN: 0887509673

Sweet Grass

by Andy Juniper,
169 pages,
ISBN: 0889625751

Beneath the Faceless Mountain

by Roberta Rees,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0889951063

Walk Good Guyana Boy

224 pages,
ISBN: 0969772025

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First Novels - Drawing the Lines
by Maureen Garvie

ALL OF THIS ISSUE'S BOOKS TEND TO give rise to speculations on the boundaries between life and fiction, and the point at which the writer has chosen to draw the line. Elizabeth Nickson makes it clear that her novel, The Monkey-Puzzle Tree (Knopf, 277 pages, $27 cloth), is based on a national scandal: the illegal use by the psychiatrist Ewen Cameron in the 1950s of private patients at the Allen Institute in Montreal in brainwashing experiments for the CIA. Nickson's own mother was one of those patients.

As a journalist Nickson saw "many tempting dramatic elements" in the story. She also wanted to convey the horror of the extraordinary abuse of trust and its legacy of ruined lives. To describe factually the toll Cameron's experiments took on her family would entail painful invasions of privacy; fiction was her solution. While the named figures and surviving plaintiffs are real, "the mother in the story is not my mother," she emphasizes. "The members of the family are not my brothers or my father." Like Nickson, the book's narrator is the daughter of a CIA victim. Catherine Ramsey and her brothers bear deep psychological scars from family trauma, but it is the younger brother's attempted suicide that brings the true story out, thrusting Catherine back into the investigative journalism that was her profession before a recent burn-out.

Nickson handles a plot rife with suspicious accidents, with-held legacies, and anonymous CIA old boys protecting their own, and makes it engrossing and suspenseful. Catherine's involvement in the lawsuit against the US government functions neatly as an expository tool, but the conventions of the legal thriller also create distance; The Monkey Puzzle Tree fails to appal as thoroughly as it should. If one reason for this is genre, characterization is also to blame. Victoria Ramsey, Catherine's mother, is clearly realized as a bright, beleaguered young woman, but I had a hard time getting a fix on her in the present. Catherine's brother, Brian, is vivid as a child but doesn't add up as an adult. One of Nickson's successes is her portrait of the real-life 75-year-old civil rights litigator Joe Rauh, who is suing the CIA on behalf of Cameron's patients. Rauh's disgust for the "lily-livered" handling of the situation by the Canadian government and especially the Canadian Minister of External Affairs is summed up in a memorable one-liner: "I could carve a better man than Joe Clark out of a banana."

The West Coast writer Ellen Arrand's Public Works, Private Souls (Beach Holme, 222 pages, $14.95 paper), a semi -autobiographical novel about her grandfather, is an interesting contrast to Nickson's in its handling of fact and fiction. In the 1930s R. J. Arrand built the Borden Bridge, 40 miles north of Saskatoon and for many decades the longest bowstring arch bridge in North America. His granddaughter's book takes her to Borden to interview surviving workers from the project, now old men.

Light years away from the glamorized professional of Nickson's story, Arrand's narrator is a single mother who suffers debilitating poverty and loneliness in order to ask the questions that consume her. In Saskatoon she stays with her father's sister, drawn to her but helpless to prevent a growing enmity. For a family headed by a builder of bridges, this is one ironically full of unspannable gulfs between siblings who don't speak to each other, and in which damaged children are sent to institutions while whole ones bear the burdens. What led the narrator to tackle history through this particular focus? Perhaps that part of R. J. Arrand in her that "risks saying ... Be the best you can be. Never be a quitter."

Arrand cautions us to read her book as a work of fiction, whose purpose "is to take what maps we have of history and the world around us and create a greater, or at least more personal, truth." Through interviews, diary entries, hospital records, and recollected and imagined scenes, she vividly recreates the public work on the bridge and the private worlds of her larger-than-life grandfather, and the family in which she herself grew up and still struggles to live. Public Works, Private Souls is a book full of painfully won personal truth that makes the reader blink with admiration.

Like Arrand, the Albertan Roberta Rees sets out to recover the figures around the margins of history; she too uses old photographs to lead the reader in. Rees, however, removes herself from her narrative, giving the stage over entirely to her characters. Beneath the Faceless Mountain (Red Deer College Press, 240 pages, $14.95 paper) traverses time and space around Turtle Mountain, from the turn of the century through the Hillcrest Mine disaster, the Frank Slide, and the

Bellevue Fire. It marks many deaths, from the hundreds beneath the ground, to that of a lone driver killed on the road through the Crowsnest Pass. Rees's extraordinary "ordinary men and women" include Henry Reed, the daughter of a Native woman and an Englishman too impatient to wait for a son. Gender only rediscovered in death, Henry succeeds in evading love, living free in the hills; the rest of Rees's subjects are tied to history, to country, a man or woman's body, a child's needs -- and to the mine.

In Rees's surrealist vision of the great fire of 1917, the little Toleco sisters, wrapped in melting coils of salami, miraculously survive. The Welshman Evan Thomas dies in the Bellevue mine, longing for his workmate's wife. The child Allyn Davis engages with the world through colour and images, not words; when her father leaves to fight in Europe, her mother takes in a boarder, a Displaced Person, who briefly touches their fives with hope. Rees's work bears similarities to that of Jane Urquhart; it's meticulously edited and polished, and her imagery is dazzling and at times fantastic. According to one's disposition, the result may be viewed as lyrical and powerful -- though sometimes too much of a good thing.

David Anders's The Ocean Tree (Oberon, 184 pages, $29.95 cloth, $15.95 paper) also animates a bygone time: the early 1950s at a lakeside summer cadet camp in Ontario -- probably Ipperwash. The war is over, but Anders's characters are still clinging to the army for something it gives them, while at the same time they are dying for some privacy to think or feel. The telephone operator Dolores Emerson has not got over Eddy, the soldier she met when the cadet camp was a training camp, who died on a beach in Europe. At one point Dolores's mother wonders whether she is looking for the lost Eddy in these man-boys, the cadets. She denies it, but she's stuck in the town where she and Eddy met, reduced to sordid, detached affairs with married men, and caring for her now ailing mother.

As she puts through their desperate calls home, Dolores comes to know the cadets intimately. This summer's crop includes Harry Young, a skinny 15-year-old with bad teeth, and the psychotic Leon McEwen, who brings his Lee Enfield to a punch-up. For not entirely convincing reasons, both Dolores and Leon fix their sights on the inoffensive Harry. The camp administrators, mainly concerned with masturbation and the high rate of Returned To Units, are oblivious to potential disaster.

Anders's dialogue is first rate. In a few economical strokes he can convey the connections -- the offhand friendship between Harry and his bunkmate, Dolores's bond with her mother -- that hold human beings together. Dolores is a memorable character, for her entirely practical attitude to sex ("Get off," she said, "I've had enough"), her sadness, and her courage. The book's weakest elements are the fixations that drive the plot; yet Anders works the many threads of his multiple narratives into one fairly spectacular explosion. Oberon's jacket blurb is uncharacteristically (and justifiably) enthusiastic about this nostalgic, authentic story of a "hot, bitter summer."

Anders's story takes us to the brink of adulthood; Andy Juniper's Sweet Grass (Mosaic, 169 pages, $14.95 paper) takes us down the other side. Back in high school, his hero, Booker, was a star runner, but now in his 30s he has slowed to a crawl. The newspaper he works for has been bought by the "notorious and niggardly" King Newspapers Inc. and is on the slippery slopes of downsizing; his wife, Sarah, is away on a business trip with an attractive male mentor; Booker is home malingering, with the symptoms of every disease he writes about in his medical column; the family dog has to be put down. Intercut with Booker's crises are his recollections of the long-ago blossoming of first love, but even in the young runner Sarah fell for we see the seeds of the Booker drifting towards middle age. Without the profane, pitiless goading of his coach, Vincent Ballard, Booker would never have pulled out the stops. ("Sweet grass, Booker explains, was the "coach's euphemism for trackside vomiting brought on by hard work or over-exertion....")

Juniper, a former writer and editor for the Toronto Globe and Mail, plays it partly straight, partly for yuks. Some of the best laughs come from the dead-on satire of late-20th-century journalism in decline. But for the novel, as for Booker, pacing is a problem. Things happened in the sweet unfolding of the relationship with Sarah Harper; Booker became a man. But the present is mostly pain and noise, and we wait for something to happen. When it does, the rules have changed, and following Coach Ballard's orders only gets you a ruptured lung.

It's a long way from middle-class angst to a novel by an immigrant writer that reflects first-hand experience. In Walk Good Guyana Boy (Learning Improvement Centre, 224 pages, $15.90 paper), by Bernard Heydon, Stephen Sleighton grows up in Georgetown, Guyana, in a happy, chaotic family, leaves school and home to join the RAF in England and returns, disillusioned, to take up a career as a teacher. But increasing political turmoil turns romance to tragedy, and Stephen again decides on a new life elsewhere. Deciphering the Creole of Heydon's dialogue requires either use of the glossary or ingenuity on the part of the reader, and the narrative leans heavily on exposition. The book's value ties in its detail and texture and the experience it conveys: of riding in the $50 car that is Stephen's father's pride and joy, playing cricket, trapping a mongoose, or handling the consequences of violence and dislocation.


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