IF ALL we ask of the historical novel is that it immerse us in a richly detailed representation of life, then Bernice Morgan's Random Passage (Breakwater, 269 pages, $24.95 cloth) is an undoubted success. This chronicle of an isolated family's struggle to carve out a life along the rugged shores of Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula in the early 1800s is impressive; it unfolds its powerful scenes of human privation and elemental violence with a sure sense of time and place. Economic and social history, legend and folklore, the cycles of birth and courtship, sickness and death - all are carefully woven into chapters that graphically record what it must have been like to depend on fish, weather, European markets, and the whims of Water Street merchants for the barest necessities of an almost intolerably difficult existence.
What doesn't happen in Random Passage is a plot - a plot beyond, that is, the seasonal rhythms of the community's growth or the surge of Newfoundland's history. Morgan divides her novel into two parts: the first, 200 pages long, takes the point of view of a young woman, Lavinia Andrews, and records some dozen years in the settlement's progress; the second, much shorter, follows the tiny village's resident business agent, Thomas Hutchings, through his subsequent attempt to make a new life for himself in St. John's. All of this is convincing, but comes up short, finally, on themes and/or meanings other than those embedded in the relentless accretion of details. The novel is slow-moving, ponderously precise, thick with chronology and accurate - if sometimes overly poetic - dialogue; its structure, especially its conclusion, seems arbitrary. It simply goes on, and on, and on, and on, and then it ends. Like life, you say? True, but fiction can do more than this.
Katie Campbell's Live, in the Flesh (Octopus, 211 pages, $13.95 paper) also seems to be missing a key ingredient or two. The narrator of these graceful, often witty impressions is 33, lives in London, England, has recently left her husband, and is searching for love and the meaning of life. The novel is a series of observations and short takes, set in England, France, Portugal, and Canada. The subjects are the dislocations of modem love (there's a chapter called "Break-ins," another, on vibrators, called "Girl's Best Friend"); the themes touched upon include anorexia and bulimia, feminist empowerment, and the sexual abuse of children, which is "the centre of the story ... the source of the flow. "
The novel offers shimmering surfaces: word-play, "phrases, scraps of poems, an image," questions literal and rhetorical ("from what should we construct our lives, our stories of ourselves?"), and a sensibility that comes on as part nouveau roman, part warmed-over Beat enthusiasm for glorified trivia. "I'm almost halfway through my three score and ten," the narrator says, "and what do I have to show for it? A catalogue of names and places." Indeed. Live, in the Flesh is a collage; some of its elements are transparent, some opaque, some banal or pretentious, some sharply affecting. The effects are pleasant but thin. There's rather more fun and cleverness here than substance.
To Ontario: a recent spring night in the city of "Limestone" (Kingston, Ontario), a cast of urban marginals, a leap into the fabulous - Thinking about Magritte (HarperCollins, 141 pages, $14.95 paper), by Kate Stems, is an engaging exercise in magic realism. "Truth may be constant," Stems says, a short way into her book, "but people choose to believe what they want in this world." The characters in this novel, none of whom would pass (or probably wish to pass) for normal in any sense of that word, come alive for a few hours, pursue their odd, fantastical desires, reach a resolution of sorts, vanish at daybreak.
Stems keeps the audience off balance, charmingly, with a series of finely crafted vignettes. The world she creates has its own rules, its own order. Her people - a hydrocephalic orphan, a bald hairdresser, a middle-aged man convinced he's pregnant, an insomniac bus driver trying out Chinese on his passengers, a family of acrobats, a dozen more equally weird characters - form a kind of crazy counterpoint to the ordinary lives that make up a city's biography. Brautigan comes to Kingston, Chagall drifts above. "There were times to place the fictions of life above the facts." Thinking about Magritte has a wild, whimsical logic; the coherence of Stems's vision asks readers to reconsider their expectations of reality. Challenging, cannily written, the novel makes an intriguing case for itself. If Live, in the Flesh gives somewhat less than meets the eye, Thinking about Magritte gives somewhat more. But it's a close call; readers will make up their own minds.
No doubts about Anne Montagnes's Mumsahib (Goose Lane, 183 pages, $14.95 paper): this is a mature, accomplished work, in full control of its materials, carefully written, densely organized. The heroine and principal narrator, Lucy, is in her 50s, a poet and anthologist living in Toronto. She has a lover, an ex-husband, grown children, and an ancestry that includes a Baptist-missionary grandmother who married a surgeon in the Indian Medical Service. Lucy's grandparents eventually moved to New Brunswick; her own parents lived in Toronto and on a farm north of the city. The novel is Lucy's journey into this rich and confusing past - physically, as she flees pre-Christmas Toronto to India, and spiritually, as she unpacks three generations of colourful, tightly packed emotional baggage.
Mumsahib is subtitled A Novel in Stories, and certainly some of these pieces can stand alone (and some have been separately published). But the pieces are woven together seamlessly; it's the overall effect that counts, the cumulative layering of present and past, Canada and India, the ebb and flow of different narrative perspectives and themes. The novel is difficult to summarize, since it's so crowded with domestic details, ambiguous legacies, racial conflicts, and overlapping and intersecting points of view. Montagnes's prose is lush but precise; it celebrates sights and smells and textures, images of violence and sexuality, unsettling dreams and exotic settings.
Novels of self-discovery are not uncommon. What gives Montagnes's work its flavour is the imposition of a demanding fictional technique upon her heroine's vividly imagined personal history. Lucy sees herself as defined in some mysterious way by the blending of generations and cultures; in the course of her explorations she is able to order her perceptions and memories and find the recipe for her own unique identity.
Jennifer Mitton's Fadimatu (Goose Lane, 261 pages, $14.95 paper) is a thoroughgoing exotic, set in Africa, with just one short interlude in London, England. The eponymous heroine is 19 when the story begins, a student at a school in northern Nigeria. The novel traces her next few years: rustication to her father's village home, her discovery of a gift for painting, marriage, and childbirth (she's a third wife, her twins do not survive), separation from her husband, a search for her estranged mother, a quick adventure "out" to England. The young people Mitton focuses on are like young people anywhere, obsessed with friendship, sex, excitement, the future. In the world of Fadimatu, however, all these concerns are played out against the astonishing conflicts of a country in rapid transition from tribalism to consumerism.
Mitton writes in an understated, skeptical prose that reflects Fadirnatu's reservations about anything she has not experienced first hand. "If Nigeria was the giant of Africa," the young woman muses, "why did everyone want to leave?" The novel is funny, sad, and not without hope; the folk wisdom and ways that occasionally limit Mitton's characters in their quest for modernity also give them the strength and resilience to endure it. Contrasts are everything in Fadirnatu, and Mitton's dialogue, a quirky, fascinating patois that quickly justifies itself, expresses the novel's tensions wonderfully. Readers will become attached to these people, and find them hard to forget.
The present-time of Carole Corbeil's Voice-over (Stoddart, 291 pages, $24.95 cloth) is the summer of 1984 in Toronto, but as this very contemporary story of two sisters and their mother unfolds, it ranges back and forth to the 1950s in Montreal and to several locations (Jamaica, the Eastern Townships, Quebec City) along the way. The settings reflect Corbeil's subject, the French-English split in Canada's national psyche; the novel explores this ambiguous terrain as bravely as any novel since Two Solitudes. If, like its eminent predecessor, Voice-over fails to resolve the problems it sets out, it certainly asks most of the right questions.
Claudine and Janine are both in their early 30s, their mother, Odette, in her 50s. The daughters escaped to Toronto in the mid-1970s, 15 years after their parents' divorce and Odette's remarriage into Westmount destroyed their cultural and linguistic equilibrium. Claudine is now a documentary film-maker, locked into drugs, booze, and destructive relationships; Janine has a difficult marriage and a small daughter. Their struggles, and their mother's, for some sense of personal worth, for some sort of cultural identity these are clearly the same thing -give the novel its vibrant life. As Corbeil deconstructs the lives of these characters, laying them bare, she risks making them unlikable; but her insights ultimately elicit sympathy for them.
A bigger risk is the novel's experiment with language: enough of it is in untranslated French as to insist unrelentingly upon the fact of our country's two tongues. Some may object, but I suspect that anyone sufficiently interested in the book to read it in the first place will not merely survive Corbeil's technique but find it rewarding. For me, the textual bilingualism emphasizes just how uncompromisingly Voice-over locates its themes in language, and how seriously the novel takes these themes. All the book's oppositions -Toronto and Montreal, French and English, men and women, past and present - are centred here. This is a novel of the way we talk, about the way we talk. And thus the way, inescapably, we are and must be.
Voice-over builds its cumulative fictional power through a progression of vivid scenes. Shards of memory, erotic encounters, family confrontations and explosions - it takes a while for all these to come together and establish their direction, but when they do they light up with significance. In her subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) repeating and echoing motifs of abuse and pain, vulnerability and rejection, Corbeil speaks with remarkable clarity of this country's schizophrenic soul. Voice-over is a strong, challenging novel.