by Jeffrey Canton
We've waited a long time for Brian Doyle's Mary Ann Alice.His last novel, the award-winning Uncle Ronald was published in 1996 and rumours of the imminent publication of this book have had to be dispelled more than once, but here it is at last. And it's sublime, whichever way you look at it. This is Brian Doyle at his very best, walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy, and creating a book that rings as sweetly as does the church bell at St. Martin's Church in the little town of Martindale, the church bell after which Doyle's wonderful heroine has been named.
It's not easy to describe Mary Ann Alice. It's at once a fine, funny and fanciful comic turn that makes you grin and giggle and blush with sheer delight as Doyle shows himself yet again, no surprise really, to be a superb comic writer. But Mary Ann Alice is more than that. It's also a tenderly poignant story of one young woman's coming of age at a time and in a place that are part and parcel of the literary landscape that Brian Doyle has shared with his readers for nearly three decades, that is the terrain of Uncle Ronald, Up to Low, Covered Bridge and haunts the background of Angel Square and Easy Avenue¨Low and its environs. And being a coming of age story, it's filled with the open-eyed insights into the physical and emotional and spiritual changes that Mary Ann Alice, with the soul of a poet, can't help but revel in.
This spirited historical novel details the building of the Paugan Dam in 1928 at Low, Quebec on the Gatineau River which, as Doyle tells us, was at the time one of the major power plants of the world, and Mary Ann Alice re-creates that historical moment in a totally Doylesque fashion but leaves us gasping at the incredible portrait of the social and economic climate of a rural community in the late 1920s.
While Mary Ann Alice McCrank will undoubtedly sweetly weave her way into the hearts of young readers, and not so young readers too, Doyle has created a fabulous supporting cast. There's the geology-mad Patchy Drizzle, Mary Ann Alice's teacher and mentor, and his sharp-tongued but deeply unhappy wife Victoria, nee Wakefield, and the madcap Cork family, the only family with a four-holer outhouse in the whole countryside. There are her father, Frank McCrank, joker and bugler, and her mother Fuzzy, known for speaking her mind. Mary Ann Alice's best friend is Doobie Noonan, obsessed with local heartthrob Andy Ryan, who hopes to watch Mary Ann Alice kiss young Mickey McGuire Jr., who is the great-nephew of Ronnie O'Rourke, better known to Doyle fans as Uncle Ronald. And fans of that book will find old friends like the O'Malley girls, Edith and Mildred, who nobody can tell apart and His Honor the Mayor of Low, Even