Innocent Cities

by Jack Hodgins
392 pages,
ISBN: 0771041861

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Really Not Magic
by Fraser Sutherland

ALTHOUGH MUCH HAS been made of Jack Hodgins`s "magic realism," there is nothing here that would outrage the conventions of the mainstream historical novel. The times and places (the 1880s, Victoria -- with detours to California and Australia) are carefully researched and vividly evoked. A throng of characters jostles eventfully. The plot twists and turns nicely. The story begins with the encounter of a widower and a widow in a graveyard. A builder named Logan Sumner is contemplating yet another addition to the serial epitaph he is composing for his own tombstone, when into this Eden unexpectedly steps an enigmatic Eve. Kate Jordan nee McConnell has come to claim Sumner`s friend and prospective father-in-law, James Horncastle, proprietor of the Great Blue Heron Hotel. Horncastle, an affable if pugilistic gambler, is a bigamist. Kate, in asserting marital claims, will prove to be his implacable pursuer. Both have a disconcertingly large circle of friends and family. The heart of the Great Blue Heron Hotel is Horncastle`s office, the same log cabin he`d purchased for a saloon soon after moving to the Colony from San Francisco with his wife in 1860, one of the squared-log fish warehouses built by French-Canadian carpenters in the Hudson`s Bay fortress that had been dismantled just before the Horncastles arrived. In the course of expansion, Horncastle has renovated his past just as Sumner is rewriting his own history. In fact, most of the city`s residents -- and `its many new comers -- are likewise engaged in impos ing civilization on nature, erecting false fronts and Potemkin villages, as if to impress such vice-regal visitors as the Marquess of Lorne and Princess Louise. But much comes to wreckage, like the stencilled fragments of boxes washed ashore: "FLOUR, DEZZASSEIS, SIDE UP, WALKING." One character the half-Nootka, half-Scottish Zak even lives in a shack fabricated of such wordy debris. This elaborate process of claiming and naming, of writing the present and rewriting the past, is the most interesting` element in this thoughtful novel. As: Kate says, recalling her early days in Australia: It is the fault of that old lunatic Adam who started it all, I think, and all his lunatic offspring males who became explorers and geographers and dictionary-makers -- all of them wanting, I`m sure of it, to nail everything down into some sort of rigid identity in order to perpetrate some awful fiction upon us. That whole ancient worn-down flattened-out continent wished to strangle the breath out of me with the arms of its endless forest of names! Sumner, inseparable from his yardstick, measures everything at hand. Yet he also aspires to escape the boundaries imposed by himself or others. Such aspirations are connoted by the sheer amount of time Hodgins`s creatures -- human, winged, and four-legged -- spend balanced in the branches of trees or temporarily airborne in ill-conceived flying machines. As well, the novel extrapolates the observation of William Law, the 18th-century mystic: Oh, how sweet is this contemplation of the height and depth of the riches of divine Love! With what attraction must it draw every thoughtful man to return love for love to this overflowing fountain of boundless goodness. The implications of unreturned love obsess the figures in the tapestry. But there are too many figures in the tapestry, too many angles of vision. Which may be why this complex, intelligent, and artfully constructed novel is so tedious. Notwithstanding Hodgins`s graceful style, a boatload of fully delineated secondary characters clutters the scene, too much dialogue advances too much narrative, and the complicated clash of the McConnell and Horncastle families becomes a tiresomely ramified melodrama: a welter of courtships, engagements, likings, rivalries, estrangements, and separations. The theme of mysterious, cloudy, or concealed pasts is interesting, but the people who embody it are not. Kate, at first a marvelously realized femme fatale, becomes a dull harridan, and her three McConnell sisters, although intensively depicted, never quite come to life. Norah, the first -- or, rather, the second -- Mrs. Horncastle and her family do not warrant the space expended on them. As for Horncastle, the adventurous hotelier, he grows dimmer and dimmer as the pages pass. In contrast to these denizens, the bemused, confused carpenter-turned-architect Logan Sumner -- he of the grandiose tombstone and experimental flights -- best epitomizes Hodgins`s preoccupations. Caught in Kate`s web, Sumner blunders between duty and passion, fact and fantasia, action and stasis, death and life. Unfortunately, the author is not content with this focal figure and throws his novel off-centre by devoting so much space to dispersing the Horncastles and retrieving the McConnells. The result is too much realism, and not enough magic.

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