||True To Form
by Mickael Happy
KEITH MAILLARD`s seventh novel, Light in the Company of Women, is a historical romance set at the turn of the century, and is the first of a proposed series of novels about the fictional steel-mill town of Raysburg, West Virginia.
Romance enjoys the reputation of being the poor relation of "serious" literature because of its supposed tendency to page-turning prurience. But romance, as Northrop Frye pointed out, has a long and proud heritage because of its vigorous representation of the search for identity as an adventure-quest. Its appeal, therefore, has always been immediate and universal, despite the depths to which individual examples of it have tended to sink. At its best, romance cuts through contemporary tastes to suggest there is little else worth telling than the same old story.
Light in the Company of Women is close to being romance at its very best. Maillard, who teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, has a wellhoned skill in the craft of writing that shows on every page. It is not just that the novel is superbly researched and meticulously plotted. In his notes at the end of the novel, Maillard explains that he attempted "to write in a style inspired by, and similar to, the general style of popular fiction at the time the book is set." This is a daring approach, and Maillard turns it into a tour de force, tapping into the old-fashioned pleasure of reading prose that is as exuberant as it is exact.
No summary of the plot would do the novel justice, because the story - true to form - is very familiar. The protagonist, Sarsfield Middleton, is the son of one of those legendarily entrepreneurial Industrial Age families that by the turn of the century had joined the ranks of the so-called American aristocracy. Despite enjoying the advantages of wealth, Middleton must struggle with the consequences of a traumatic childhood in the home of his alcoholic father, his ambitions as a pioneer of colour photography, and his frustrated love for his beautiful cousin Julia. Will Sarsfield Middleton overcome his disappointments and find true happiness?
Yes, Light in the Company of Women is a page-turner, but for all the right reasons. Writing in the style of an earlier age has not required Maillard to ignore the expectations of his readers, whose sophistication he takes for granted. His approach is dramatic rather than discursive - the novel fairly crackles with dialogue - making Maillard`s realization of his characters particularly subtle. In this regard he is a storyteller in the best sense - an artist who trusts in the demands of his tale before anything else.
Maillard`s mill town and its inhabitants are so finely rendered that it is a pleasure to anticipate returning to them in the novels to come. Light in the Company of Women has made Raysburg a place well worth visiting.