The Island Walkers

by John Bemrose
ISBN: 0771011113

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Island Walkers
by John Ayre

In an article in Harrowsmith ten years ago on his hometown Paris, Ontario, John Bemrose admitted he has been haunted since childhood by a two-volume local history by Don Smith. It was here that he understood that the process of regarding the past was not really intellectual but overwhelmingly emotional and imaginative. With a romantic florish, Bemrose suggested that ideally the end of historical study was to discover "faces in the hills, voices in the leaves." Certainly a place's identity should start with a resurrection of its geniuses, its most unusual people. For Bemrose, there were two especially resonant figures he found in Smith's book, the town's 19th century rationalist patriarch, Hiram Capron, who seemed to dream the town into existence and, on a totally different scale, a shabby eccentric poet, Bobby West.
This has the look of an agenda of an historical, even Faulknerian gothic novel, and Bemrose did proceed enough along that path in his first novel, The Island Walkers, to try to use those two key figures. The patriarch appears as Abraham Shade and the eccentric as Johnny North. But these figures, both of whom share an ironic penchant for reducing experience to bad verse, ultimately prove to be peripheral. They add colour and a bit of inspiration to the minds of other characters who try, a bit too desperately perhaps, to find significance in their versifying.
Instead, Bemrose takes a major risk in centering his narrative around labour strife in 1965 in the town's fabric mill. The faces and voices he uses are the ones he has personally seen and heard when he worked in the mill in the summers as a student. As a result, the faces and voices are not projected romantically onto the surrounding countryside but onto the walls of the town's industrial streets and dingy houses. This represents a clear gamble because the last writers to use this kind of ambience were the kitchen sink writers of the 1950s in Britain.
Bemrose's lead figure, a weary taciturn millwright called Alf Walker, is moreover a character who seems poorly designed to inspire great interest today. Suffering trauma after killing a German boy soldier towards the end of World World Two, Alf has nevertheless made a small but honorable life for himself as expert fixer in the large fabric mill. He is an "Island Walker" because he's the Walker who lives in a small working class district formed by the "island" of the river and a millrace. With his British war bride, Alf has three children and enjoys the prospect of becoming nothing so grand as the plant foreman. But labour strife and the promise of unionism has for the second time in his career made his life miserable. He asks himself, "Where had his life gone? It had gone up in war, in anger, in hope, in the years of raising children, in the churn of knitting machines, in the lick of water on stone."
Against Alf's story is a major subplot involving his son Joe, which also presents many ironies and blocked hopes. Yet there's a difference because there's a promise at least that Joe can get beyond the obstacles in his life. A top student, apparently destined for university, Joe has developed a Dantean passion for an illusive poetry-writing girl called Anna Macrimmon who lives up the hill where the wealthy live. Anna appears unapproachable and at first agonizingly untouchable. Instead Joe is swept up by Anna's friend, a worldly girl called Liz who is interested in sex. Liz is the daughter of an eccentric non-practising physician who made a small fortune as landlord and stock speculator.
What gives a contemporary air to the novel is an almost Orwellian atmosphere of spying and betrayal which rises out of the unfeeling dynamics of plant closings and anti-union policies. The fabric mill at the centre of the novel has recently been taken over by a calculating multinational "behemoth" called Intertex which sends around a team of efficiency inspectors in ridiculous yellow hardhats. A company executive, Bob Prince, turns up wanting Alf to reveal names of people involved in a unionization effort. Gossip is lethal. People who show too much interest in unionization are suddenly fired and Pete, Alf's best friend, commits suicide under pressure.
Against this corrosive background people find small reserves of love, hope and sexual satisfaction. For Alf, an affair serves as a release, a tiny rebellion against tension and personal boredom. For his son, Joe, an affair with two wealthy girls represents a possible future beyond the dull confines of his working class. His social dilemmas resemble those of Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser's An American Tragedy.
Nature, which lies just outside town, also offers release. It has its own identity and power-is both playful and lethal. The river often drowns people (it took away Alf's father). Reflections of light pass across the waters and fields like spirits. It's here that Bemrose sometimes succumbs to romanticism and passages veer close to the purple. Bemrose can't seem to see a cloud without seeing a sailing ship. At the end, a magical solution for Joe in the countryside leaves not a few doubts in the reader's mind. It's nevertheless easy to admire The Island Walkers.
Fiction about ordinary people in mundane circumstances, who face bitter failure after losing a last chance for improvement, who find no meaning in what they do but somehow perservere, is probably the most difficult to bring off. In discovering the extraordinariness of the little man trapped in dangerous personal and social predicaments, Bemrose succeeds with considerable skill.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us