SET IN A SOUR future of blasted cities, fundamentalist politics, and vigilante patrols, Sean Stewart's Passion Play (Beach Holme, 231 pages, $6.95 paper) is a stylized cyberpunk thriller with more flash than fire. The narrator, Diane Fletcher, a freelance hitwoman with the powers of an empath (she can read emotional patterns in other people), is hired by the authorities to find the killer of a famous actor; in the process she must risk her own burned-out soul. Stewart writes vividly, if at times melodramatically, and paints a depressing picture of a harsh theocratic society. Trouble is, his plot is too thin; stripped of its mannerisms and atmospheric effects, Passion Play doesn't offer enough mystery for the heroine, or the reader, to work on.
The Skystone (Viking, 624 pages, $16.99 paper), by Jack Whyte, takes the story of King Arthur back to its earliest beginnings, in fifth-century Roman Britain; it's intended to be the first of a series of novels called A Dream of Eagles. Whyte presents his material in first-person narrative, with clean, undecorated prose and contemporary-sounding dialogue; he emphasizes military history. The canvas is broad, the action is exciting. There is, I'm aware, an enthusiastic audience for solid work in this genre, and The Skystone should keep them happy.
Walter Trost's Winter Lotus (Highridge Associates, 592 pages, unpriced) describes itself as the "autobiography of a human soul," an attempt "to discover what it is in a person that gives him life, keeps him alive, and lets him die." Lightly fictionalized philosophical ruminations, and very slow going.
Moses and the Great Cataclysm (Lugus, 232 pages, $18.95 paper), by W. Ronald Williams, is likewise an argument in the form of a novel. Retelling the story of Moses (competently if a bit stiffly), the book explains some of the remarkable material therein with reference to geological events. Anyone susceptible to the sort of speculation stirred up by Immanuel Velikovsky will want to took at this book; besides, Bible stories have the inherent appeal of familiarity.
There aren't many novels set in and around Sydney, Nova Scotia. Ellison Robertson's In Love with Then (Goose Lane, 220 pages, $14.95 paper) is a thriller, and uses its setting -- fading clapboard houses, steel-mill stacks, spruce forests, and ponds -- to project a mood of frustration and blighted hopes. Robertson's hero, Mike MacDonald, is 58, recently separated, living in a grimy hotel room, and drinking too much. He works, not very successfully, at insurance investigations and credit checks, his aged father has suffered a stroke and can no longer care for himself, and his estranged son is recovering from mental illness. And one of Mike's Second World War buddies, something of a local character, has just been found murdered.
The book takes a while to establish its intentions, but once Robertson fills out the contours of Mike's sorrows and opens up the complexities of the mystery behind the murder, In Love with Then turns into a quite satisfying work. The prose is low key, and affords some thoughtful perceptions about ordinary lives and difficult loves. There are nice touches, especially where the main character's struggles to reach understanding and decide upon action are concerned: "His brain turned slowly, like a shotgunned duck spiralling toward the pond." Although the ending is rather sudden, leaving some of a reader's questions unanswered, on the whole the novel accomplishes its aims admirably. This may not be the best first novel of the year, but it ought to he on the short list for the best Canadian crime debut.
Robert Majzels undertakes an ambitious task in Hellman's Scrapbook (Cormorant, 455 pages, $14.95 paper): to recreate, through a pastiche of journal entries, letters, and excerpts from newspapers and books, the lives of a seriously disturbed young man, his family, and his friends. The book has several successes the alarmingly unsettling voice of the first-person narrator, David Hellman, the energy and skill of the prose, the intelligent development of character, scene, and event -- but falls short of a fictional vision that would transform these elements into a fully integrated novelistic structure. The parts, to put it simply, work better than the whole.
The year is 1980; Hellman is a patient in the Hochelaga Memorial Institute in Montreal, under the care of the enigmatic Dr. Hyman Caulfield. It's David's disturbing aptitude, as well as his curse and the effective cause of his illness, to be able to share fully the feelings of others simply by holding hands with them. Accepting the enormous responsibilities such insight implies has driven him mad. He has been suffering from paranoid delusions; he has recently doused his hands with lighter fluid and set them afire.
David's scrapbook/journal interweaves a record of his clinical progress, or lack thereof, with chunks of flashback (often quite lengthy and addressed for much of the book to his father); these take up, among other concerns, his own experiences with school, work, travel, and drugs, and his father's ordeal in a concentration camp during the war. The stories that grow in these flashbacks are well crafted, if occasionally self-indulgently long and detailed; they are full of vivid scenes and rich with obsessive incidents and symbols The excerpts (the "scrapbook" effects) -- brief clippings and more substantial interruptions printed so as to obliterate passages of Davids text -- usually connect thematically with the primary material, but occasionally seem gratuitous.
What is lacking in Hellmans Scrapbook lacking for me, anyway -- is the larger view that would truly collect and unify all the smaller pictures that Majzels so devotedly focuses on. David Hellman's gift -- his belief in his emotional sensitivity -- is clearly meant to provide this imaginative core, but it seems, as the novel unfolds, a clever gimmick rather than an informing narrative or thematic design. It simply isn't powerful or original enough to do the job. Reading the novel, and trying to Put it together, is more like looking at a pile of scrapbooks, or a shelf of photo-albums, than the author perhaps intended. It's all very interesting, even at times engrossing; but without some sort of answer to the question "what am I supposed to be getting out of this?", the viewer may be left, as I was, teased by the impression of fictionalized experience without an effective centre.
Wafer Thin (Cormorant, 118 pages, $12.95 paper), by Elin Elgaard, is more concentrated than Majzels's book, and scores its points more sharply. It's also a strange novel, thanks chiefly to a prose style that's quirky and idiosyncratic at best, precious and show-offy at worst. Elgaard's language is allusive and elliptical (not to mention convoluted and tricky); the choppy rhythms, dangling references, and puns and wordplay compel a struggle for circumstantial clarity. Initially the reader, like the narrator, may feel "a sense of nothing ended, nothing begun, only words going on, on, on, to no purpose." Keep at it -- the effort to find a purpose is definitely rewarding.
Lucas Waring (age uncertain -- probably in his 30s) has moved with his mother (she's just retired) from Halifax to a small community toward the New Brunswick border, along the Fundy marshes. The run-down house next door, more like a shed, is soon occupied by a recently separated young woman, Loma Carey, and herfive-year-old son, Ned. Lucas begins a friendship with the little boy, who he comes quickly to suspect has been physically, perhaps sexually, abused by his father. In his private investigations (which take him to the local doctor, the boy's grandfather, and a social worker), Lucas picks up fragments of possibility, and in piecing them together unearths some long-buried truths about his relationship with his own estranged father.
Wafer Thin is a novel about ordinary people with extraordinary sensitivities; the interplay of motives -- friendship, responsibility, love -- is what urges a reader's attention. Lucas and his mother share remarkable intuitions about the lives they touch, and about their own strange emotional connection; these have a context at once folkloric, literary, and philosophical. Through her density of meaning and language Elgaard turns a basically simple tale into a darkly suggestive fable. Reading Wafer Thin, I was reminded of The Double Hook, of the force that very peculiar novel has to challenge a reader's assumptions about "normal" human experience.