Cumberland, by Michael V. Smith (Cormorant Books, $22.95, 293 pages, ISBN: 1896951368). Smith is another of the many fine graduates of the UBC Writing Program, and in Cumberland gives a clear look at a group of well-defined characters in a dying industrial town in Ontario. Ernest is 50ish and divorced. He has just lost his long-time job at a mill because it closed down. Ernest is a loner who drinks too much and has a sexual identity problem. He begins a relationship with Bea, a waitress at a local bar, a 40ish woman who has never had a permanent relationship.
Nick is 35, a cable installer grieving the death of his wife so much he doesn't have time for his 9-year-old son Aaron. Amanda is 17, fleeing a bad home life and rents Bea's extra bedroom. Here we have five very lonely people. How they interact with each other is handled in a remarkably mature manner. Amanda is attracted to Nick. Aaron takes up with a thuggish boy his own age. Bea has some difficult decisions to make. These are mainly decent people who have lived hard lives, something that isn't going to change. They are sympathetic and the set up is strong. I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen. For about 250 pages this was the best first novel of the year. Unhappily, it's as if a Hollywood screenwriter was hired finish up the book for Smith. There are artificial confrontations, and a false climax involving Aaron running away. Characters do everything but say "What is that supposed to mean?" When Amanda declares her interest in Nick, he sends her on her way with a lecture that could have been delivered by a Doctor of Sociology. The happy endings are neither plausible nor convincing. Still, the first part of this book is brilliantly done, and that makes the whole worth looking at.
Translations, by Tammy Armstrong (Coteau Books, $18.95, 369pages, ISBN: 97815502034), is an excruciatingly slow-paced story of family relationships. Julia was raised in poverty in New Brunswick, went to Ireland as a teenager and married a student from an equally low class background, who became a professor at Trinity College, Dublin. They have two children. She manages to get an education and is translating a diary written in Gaelic by her great aunt in New Brunswick, when things fall apart. She suspects Dan, who drinks like a fish, reminding her of her long-dead father, of having an affair, and heads back to New Brunswick on a moment's notice with the children in tow. The story then alternates between Julia in Canada and Dan in Ireland. She has an affair with an old boyfriend, who hasn't changed a bit since they were teenagers. Dan manages to get suspended from Trinity College because of his misconduct with a consenting graduate student, though he lies through his teeth when confronted about it. The main problem is that the diary Julia is translating, which is a main focus of the story, is not interesting. Family histories never are. The diary is so lacking in drama that it could be a real document. Armstrong introduces endless information about peripheral characters that is nothing more that filler. The novel could easily be 100 pages shorter. Julia has a brush with death when she is trapped in a car in a blizzard while researching the diary. In Ireland, Dan borrows his best friend's car and wrecks it driving drunk. Dan eventually comes to Canada and it appears he and Julia may reunite for "the sake of the children." Dan and Julia are selfish and carelessłnot very nice people. They certainly deserve each other. But their children merit something better.
Teaching Mr. Cutler by Robert Currie (Coteau Books, $18.95, 371 pages, ISBN: 1550502050) is an agreeable novel about a high school teacher's first year in the classroom. Being a rookie Cutler has to learn how to deal with bored and uncivil students, a petty and backbiting faculty, and overbearing and narcissistic parents. The draconian principal hides in a back room and eavesdrops on all classrooms through the intercom. I can't imagine teachers putting up with this ultimate invasion of privacy. Personally I would dismantle the intercom and tell the school board where to shove their miserable job. While the teachers bitch about everything else they seem to take this kind of Communist-style spying in stride. Cutler has an open heart and really wants to reach his students. A lifetime of teaching anecdotes, mostly humorous, are crammed together here, many of them attributed to a legendary and long-gone teacher named Rutledge, sort of a teacher's Everyman. Cutler has a brief romance with the office secretary who dumps him for an old flame. He then takes up with a fellow teacher, and the unlikely climax of the novel entails his public declaration of love in front of a classroom full of her students. The students are generally too good to be true, with even the most difficult responding to kindness coupled with encouragement quite unlike in real life. There is so much time spent on actual classroom situations that my eyes occasionally glazed over, and readers unfamiliar with the books or plays being taught will be out in the cold. Overall, this is a good humored look at teaching through the idealistic eyes of a newcomer, though a little more bite might have been in order. The cover design by Duncan Campbell is a disaster. The blurred photo is off-putting, and neither the title nor the author's name are clearly visible.
Final Season by Wayne Arthurson (Thistledown Press, $18.95, 253 pages, ISBN: 1894345487). This is the first time this year I've had to fall back on the 50-page rule. If the author cannot rouse any semblance of interest in 50 pages, I abandon the book. Actually, since Thistledown published a wonderful novel called Alice, I think, by Susan Juby, a First Novel finalist for 2001, I read to page 75 before giving up. In this novel, I won't say story, because there was none; it's set in far northern Manitoba, with interchangeable, uninteresting characters engaged in pointless conversations. Those first 75 pages could be summed up in 10. The cover is pretty, proving you judge a book. . .etc.
The Feather Bed by John Miller (Simon & Pierre Fiction, $21.99, 352 pages, ISBN: 1550024019). When 90-year-old Rebecca passes away after a lifetime in a New York City tenement, her dutiful daughter Anna is surprised when her older sister Sadie, who she hasn't seen or heard from in over 50 years, comes to the funeral. Slowly, by reading their mother's diaries, the two seventy-ish sisters discover that there was much more to their mother's life than they ever imagined. The writing is solid as the layers of past are stripped away and some shocking truths revealed. Their mother was a bright girl who longed to write, but was forced into an arranged marriage to an unhealthy and abusive husband. As a young wife she became the reluctant friend of a pregnant prostitute. Life in a New York tenement in the early years of the century were cruel and uncompromising. Parts of this story are not for the faint of heart as there is some horrific blood and gore. This is a strong, well written and researched debut.
Tent of Blue by Rachel Preston (Goose Lane Editions, $22.95, 308 pages, ISBN: 0864923422), is a thoughtful novel about captivity and escape. It is also about suffering. The timeframe shifts between Vancouver in the 1950s and England in the 1930s. Yvonne is raised in England, the daughter of a ghastly drunken mother who is a performer in the seedy English music halls of the 1930s. The mother is so depraved that she sells her daughter's sexual favors in return for booze money.
Yvonne has an indomitable spirit and soldiers on, meeting a Russian ballet dancer with whom she has two children. Her baby daughter dies during the war as does the ballet dancer. She imagines she is escaping to Canada with her son Anton when she is blackmailed into marriage with a slimy and abusive English musical hall manager. The evil husband eventually dies and Yvonne and Anton settle in Vancouver where they exist in genteel poverty living off her income as a piano teacher. Yvonne fades away as the focus shifts to the teenaged Anton who is struggling to establish an identity while trying to overcome a physical handicap.
Anton meets a disabled World War 1 veteran who is essentially held prisoner by his adult daughter. The last part of the novel tells how Anton and the old man, Tom Hart, try to free themselves from captivity and move out into a not-so-friendly world. Anton's adventures as an emerging teenager in the second half of the novel are not nearly as compelling as his mother's trials in the first half. The writing is well crafted and the characters engender some sympathy though their raw suffering sometimes seems too calculated.
W. P. Kinsella reads first novels and plays in Scrabble Tournaments.