Luminosity (Random House, 432 pages, $32.95 cloth) is a huge book-not just in terms of length, but in terms of scope and ambition as well. Its authors, Frank and Gillian (who've opted to drop their last names and to live and write together in Clarksburg, Ontario), have created a novel that rambles. Out of control. One susp ects that they were determined to pack every thought they ever had on a multitude of subjects-photography, theatre, and fashion, to name just three-into one work of fiction.
The novel revolves around a trio of unlikely friends. The central figure is Richard Hathaway, whose privileged upbringing in Toronto as the single child of wealthy parents has provided him with everything but a sense of direction. He dabbles in English, biology, paranormal psychology, and exotic travel, but never plumbs their depths. His best friend, Breetz Mestrovic, is also his foil: so focused is he on his passion for photography that he loses sight of everything else. His particular obsession is luminosity, the quality he has seen only in photographs of Marilyn Monroe, who "stood for the divine spark in us all". Breetz spends his entire life searching for the secret of how to achieve luminosity in his pictures-something he has done only once and by accident in his youth, before he became a celebrated Vogue photographer. This is where the trio's third member comes in. Unknown to Breetz, the "luminous" photo he took is of Kate Barnes, who has attained instant stardom with her "radiant" portrayal of Roxanne in a Stratford (Ontario) production of Cyrano, and who has befriended Richard. Through a complex series of events and unbelievable coincidences played out amongst what seems like a cast of hundreds, Richard, Breetz, and Kate live out their respective melodramas.
It is unfortunate that Luminosity was not subjected to ruthless editing to rid it of its excesses because at its heart lies a potentially successful novel.
The Alchemist's Song (Great Plains Fiction, 235 pages, $19.95 paper) by Globe and Mail correspondent David Wyn Roberts also incorporates mystery, philosophy, and the supernatural, but does so with a keener sense of direction and, consequently, more successfully. Harry Holborn, a celebrated jazz trumpeter, drowns under suspicious circumstances in Cairo. For most of his life, he (as his father before him) has been in pursuit of the missing half of a pair of legendary horns known as the Framptons. Harry has Frampton Right but, at the time of his death, hadn't found Frampton Left yet. His wife, Grace Keeper, returns to their home in London where she tries to make sense of Harry's death and, in the process, ends up continuing his quest. In the meantime, and unbeknownst to her, others are searching for the horn: certain agencies wish to conduct tests as part of the creation of "processors fifty thousand times faster than current microchips", but they need both trumpets to do so.
Roberts deftly weaves Native lore, alchemy, and music into a tale which could all too easily have become a conventional "who-done-it", but which, thanks to his fine writing and focus, manages to evade this lure.
Although The Bitter Taste of Time (HarperCollins, 255 pages, $26 cloth) by Bea Gonzalez is a dark family saga full of tragedy, it has the feel of village gossip elevated to drama. The setting is the small Spanish town of Canteira between 1920 and 1997. The Encarna clan is the talk of Canteira, and the lives of the family members, a group of women dominated by the irrepressible Maria, are intertwined inexorably with the life of the town.
Maria, nicknamed Maria la Reina because of her proud bearing and remarkable beauty, turns her house into a pension after her husband's suicide. Eventually, she builds a fifty-room hotel and cafe, and the family's fortunes grow. Wealth, however, is no guarantor of happiness nor does it stave off the disasters, of which there are many throughout the years.
In Maria la Reina, Gonzalez has created an unforgettable matriarch-a female force to be reckoned with, and more, an embodiment of the will of the human spirit to shine no matter how great the darkness.
Tessa McWatt's Out of My Skin (Riverbank Press, 208 pages, $19.99 paper) chronicles the identity quest of Daphne Baird, who at the age of thirty decides to leave Toronto (and her adoptive parents) and move to Montreal in search of a fresh start. It is the summer of 1993, and the city is simmering in the heat of the Oka crisis. This is the backdrop against which Daphne's personal crisis unfolds.
When she contacts her aunt through the adoption agency, she learns that her mother committed suicide and that her Guyanese grandfather had been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. Daphne's aunt gives her the journals he kept during that period-journals that contain unexpected information. In the end, Daphne's triumph is that she can confront her past, accept it, and then put it aside. She may not be able to unlearn what she learns, but nor does she have to condemn herself to a life predetermined by it.
McWatt has written an accomplished, thought-provoking first novel. She is definitely a writer to watch.
The Bubble Star (Porcupine's Quill, 160 pages, $15.95 paper) by Lesley-Anne Bourne centres on the relationships of three sisters with one another and with the men in their lives. The youngest, Imogene, still lives in their hometown of Willow Junction in Northern Ontario. Janis, the middle child, has moved to Toronto, and works in a large retail clothing store, while Peggy-Leigh, the oldest, is an anorexic visual artist.
This book is really intertwined portaiture: the author shows characters inhabiting their lives, which also intersect with the lives of others. There is no other "plot" of which to speak. Bourne writes as if she were viewing her characters through binoculars-from a distance. And while her pared-down writing style is competent and serviceable, it is, for the most part, lacklustre.
Temper, Temper (Insomniac, 232 pages, $18.99 paper) by Victoria-based visual artist and zine publisher Sonja Ahlers is hailed by the publisher as an "unprecedented graphic novel". The idea here is that this is, literally, a visual narrative, a story told in drawings and photographs with relatively little text. Words, when they are used, appear as part of the visual image and tell no more "story" than the visual images themselves.
Unfortunately, a work such as this can boast very little other than its "difference" from the norm (i.e., mainstream fiction). And I can't help but wonder who the readership might be, or who would be willing to pay twenty bucks for it.