||Beauty And The Beast
by Gary Draper
THE WORD "powerful" is much beloved of -- and overused by the writers of dust-jackets. But every once in a while it fits. Scot Morison`s Noble Sanctuary (Doubleday, 273 pages, $22.95 cloth) is a powerful novel. Set mostly in Beirut, Lebanon, during the troubled summer of 1982, it tells of Geoff Andrews`s search for Nadya Karameh, the beautiful Palestinian woman with whom he has fallen deeply in love.
Geoff is a believable character, despite being a painfully slow learner in his relations with women. He is callous towards his latest lover, Angela, and sometimes so insensitive towards Nadya that the reader may wonder if his work, selling real estate, has caused a learning disorder. Still, if he can be a jerk, there is a winsome naivete and sincerity to the guy. Morison also does a particularly good job with characters in the middle ground, those who are neither walk-ons nor headliners. Thomas Dix, an American journalist, is a wonderfully cynical fixer. Pierre Haddad, a wealthy Lebanese Christian, so charming when first introduced, proves to be a soulless monster. Both are complex and credible.
This is a classic quest, the story of the hero`s search for a beautiful woman and the truth, complete with monsters and other bizarre hazards, helpers and hinderers. One of the dangers of the quest pattern is that it lends itself too easily to a rambling structure. Morison, however, manages to keep the novel`s structure remarkably tight, and to keep the story moving at a pace that is brisk without being breathless. Both the love story and the subtext of political awakening are deeply engrossing.
The book is not without its improbabilities and coincidences. While Morison is guilty of occasional banalities and cliches in his prose, for the most part the writing is clean and effective. The only serious problem is a tone that is sometimes so angry, so bitter, that the reader is deflected from the story into reflections on the author`s politics.
It may, in fact, be misleading to call the story of Geoffs political awakening a "subtext." Through character, dialogue, and event, Morison makes a strong plea on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He is too good a writer to make all the Palestinians saints and all the Israelis monsters. But the fundamental picture is of the oppression of the homeless Palestinians by a frequently brutal Israeli power, and even the most unreflective reader may be surprised by the novel`s extreme partisanship. Still, Noble Sanctuary is a gripping, painful, and disturbing book.
Jay Connolly`s Dancewater Blues (Oolichan, 216 pages, $11.95 paper) is a book of contrasts: considering how strong it is in parts, its weaknesses are surprising. Connolly tells the story of the people of Stuart`s Landing, a community on the shores of Lake Okanagan, as they deal with the effect on their lives of the creature -- popularly known as Ogopogo -- who is said to live there. The central characters are Brady Stuart, a man obsessed with the creature, and Brady`s new assistant, Roy Silverheels, who has pretty much ignored the creature up till now. The creature is known by three different names, each of them pointing to a different way of understanding it. The best known is Ogopogo. This is the creature as tourist attraction. The second is "the plesiosaur," the creature as the object of scientific discovery. The third, and the one used most often here, is Naitaka: the creature as myth. Dancewater Blues is in large part a book about the nature of myth and how we relate to myth.
Inevitably, it is also about connections: at the personal level, Brady Stuart`s connection to his community, and especially to his wife, Therese; and Roy`s connection to his people, and above all to his father, Eugene. More broadly, the book is about the connections of man to a system of belief, and to the natural world. Connolly is able to suggest the importance of this theme without beating it to death.
He also has a real, if inconsistent, gift for phrasing. Responding to one entrepreneur`s observation that "people just want to remember where they`ve been," Brady says, "No. People want to own where they`ve been. That`s why they pay money. The ultimate tourist is the guy who likes a place so much he moves back and buys a summer cottage. A summer cottage is the ultimate souvenir."
With so much going right for this book, what goes wrong? Too much of the time, people and events just don`t ring true. Brady, for instance, is far too intelligent to do some of the hare-brained things he does. The episode in which Roy and Brady use a dummy of the creature`s head to try to thwart plans to exploit Ogopogo is farcical. For the most part, the magical bits work better than the everyday ones, though even this is not wholly true. When the creature leans its head into Brady`s boat and gazes meaningfully at him, the magic goes away.
Connolly is not a subtle writer. Dialogue is neither particularly individualized nor credible. Characters here speak in complex expository prose that is at odds with their apparent simplicity. There is too much explanation and analysis, too little trusting the story to carry its own message.
Happily, the book ends on a note of strength. Despite all the improbabilities and the absurdities, the final encounter unleashes or taps into the power of myth, a myth of rebirth and renewal, in a way that is compelling and impressive.
Myth gives the novelist one set of problems and opportunities, history another. Historical fiction is a tough nut for the first novelist to crack. It requires, in addition to a thorough mastery of the historical environment, the ability to create characters who are at once true to their time and accessible to our own, and the ability to walk the fine line between being faithful to historical facts and being their slave. Delbert Plett, in Pioneers and Pilgrims (Country Graphics, 100 pages, $4.00 paper), has chosen an interesting bunch of people, in an interesting time, to work with. His subject is the background and first years of the Mennonites in Manitoba, and his aim is high. He wants, by retelling the story in a fictional way, with some invented characters, to breathe life into it, to make it vivid and appealing for the general reader. Unfortunately, there are simply too many things wrong with this book for it to succeed. The characters are wooden, and they speak and think in cliches. Plett attempts to accomplish far too much in too short a space, using the most conventional of methods. He is unable to convey the fears, the adventure, the passion, the faith, that remain buried in this fertile ground. This is a story worth telling. Unfortunately, Pioneers and Pilgrims is not the book to do it.
Claudia Morrison`s From the Foot of the Mountain (Cormorant, 173 pages, $24.95 cloth, $12.95 paper) is a far more sophisticated and successful book than Plett`s. Set in Pompeii during the reign of the emperor Vespasian, it purports to be a journal written by Claudia, a well-to-do wife and mother who is following a prescribed course of reading and writing as a cure for her melancholy. What has not been prescribed is falling in love with her son`s tutor, Camillus. And, as the book`s title hints, she is writing in the shadow of Vesuvius.
The book starts slowly, and my initial impression was that, though very clever, it was more an exercise in writing than a finished novel, more essay than narrative. It may be that the novel`s major threads are too disparate, or insufficiently knit together. In part, it is a meditation on the present age through a vision of the past. Claudia reflects on such things as violence in sport, the decline of the theatre, rising crime rates, feminism, new religions, and abortion. Too often her reflections are self-evident without being instructive. Moreover, there are occasional lapses from historical credibility. And because Morrison is trying to capture the flavour of that older world, there is an austerity to the prose that is distancing.
But the book`s other major thread is the story of Claudia`s growing love for Camillus. Once that story takes hold, the distance and the cleverness begin to dissolve. As I read, I found myself more and more in Morrison`s power. She writes of passion, of denial, of longing, and of spiritual questioning like one who has been there. From the Foot of the Mountain is a slow starter, but once it takes off it is a convincing, touching, and deeply moving story of another time, and of our own.
G. Beahan`s Hard Target (Breakwater, 191 pages, $14-95 paper) is a clever book, too, though it is perhaps more unified than From the Foot of the Mountain. Beahan`s dual aims are satire and slapstick; they go together well, and he achieves some of both. When the oil industry consultant "Bronco" Bannister arrives in Newfoundland to do some work that is at least underhanded if not entirely undercover, he is the catalyst for a chain of events that allows Beahan to send up the oil industry, politics, the CIA, and a number of other wholly appropriate targets. The book is cast in the Leacockian mould, with the best of good humour on the surface, and a bite inside. The plot is tight and convoluted, though I found the conclusion something of a letdown. Beahan draws all the elements together, but instead of resolving them, or letting them all explode, he abandons them. Still, with a book like this, getting there is most of the fun.
Bronco and all the book`s various characters are more or less caricatures, but they are credible enough for the purposes of the book, and many of them are delightful creations. Beahan is hardest on the American plotters at the centre of the action, and also weakest in their creation.
This is a very pleasant read, just the thing to ward off the chill on a fall afternoon: a Newfie joke in which the joke, for a happy change, is not on the Newfie. G. Beahan, by the way, is a pseudonym for Gordon Inglis, who teaches anthropology at Memorial University. It`s a comfort to know that the serious study of people and culture can produce something as much fun as Hard Target.