by Andre Alexis,
276 pages,
ISBN: 0771006659

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First Novels - Slippery Memory
by Eva Tihanyi

An even more auspicious debut novel is Childhood (McClelland & Stewart, 270 pages, $19.99 paper), by André Alexis. This is a quiet, contemplative novel, reminiscent of a long reverie. The narrator, Thomas MacMillan, now thirty, reflects upon his life, especially his childhood and its principal relationships. Left by his mother, the wilful Katarina, Tom spends his early years in the care of his Trinidadian grandmother in Petrolia, a small Ontario town. Then, after his tenth birthday and his grandmother's death, Katarina, with her latest lover (the unsavoury Mr. Mataf) in tow, reappears to collect him. Whatever plans she might have had go awry, however, when Mr. Mataf unceremoniously abandons mother and son at the side of the road.

Katarina seeks refuge in the Ottawa home of Henry Wing, whom Tom describes as "a black man with Chinese blood, handsome, tall, forty years old, in love with a woman eleven years younger, at work on an encyclopedia of limited appeal, living on Cooper Street in the city of my dreams, my father perhaps." The younger woman is, of course, Katarina, and Alexis's depiction of this love affair is an accomplishment in itself. He strikes just the right note in rendering the details the child is allowed to see, the ones he perceives on his own, and the ones he suspects.

It is this perfect pitch, demonstrated throughout, that makes Childhood such an outstanding novel. The lyricism doesn't sound forced or contrived; the narrator doesn't over-dramatize himself or those around him; and the plot is nothing less than life itself, the passing of time, the evolution of life into inevitable death. The result is a deeply moving narrative, not just about families and growing up but about the frustrating slipperiness of memory itself: just when you think you've mastered it, got your story straight and under control, you realize you've grown older, your perspective has changed, and once again things look disconcertingly different.


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