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Brief Reviews
by Tom Nissley

Fiction

There was a time when novels were mainly about marriage or money, or, preferably, both. Now they seem mostly to be about food. In our age, more concerned with consumption than with property, the chef¨whose ephemeral creations are long gone by the time they show up on the credit card bill¨has acquired the sort of heroic appeal once reserved for marriageable landowners and ocean-mapping sailors. Food fits neatly into our hedonistically disposable culture, but, with its ties to the earth and to ethnic and personal traditions, it also answers to a yearning for something more permanent. It's authenticity you can eat.

Timothy Taylor's debut novel, Stanley Park (Knopf Canada, 424 pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0676973078), thankfully does not begin each chapter with a recipe, but food is at its centre. Taylor's hero is Jeremy Papier, a young, Vancouver-bred, French-trained chef who has returned home to start a small, ambitious restaurant that will "remind people of ... what the soil under their feet has to offer. Of a time when they would have known only the food that their own soil could offer." (Meanwhile, he warily tries to reestablish relations with his father, an eccentric anthropologist who has taken to living among the homeless in the city's vast Stanley Park.) In the novel's typically cute but wise division of the culinary world into Crips and Bloods, Jeremy is a Blood. While Crips are "post-national" cooks, fusing ingredients¨adding won tons, say, to a consommT¨without regard to locale or tradition, Bloods are "respectful of tradition, nostalgic even," favoring down-home staples like tacos and borscht. Jeremy dreams of feeding local food to local folks, like the French villagers who came on Sundays in their rubber boots to the Michelin-starred restaurant where he apprenticed.(In Vancouver the closest equivalents are bike messengers.)

This is a novel about roots, but it's nothing like Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, another recent book with a similar theme. Whereas MacLeod's Cape Bretoners are the Rubber Boot People themselves, so yoked to land and family that they can only face modernity with a mute and furious incomprehension, Jeremy is irretrievably modern and cosmopolitan. Being a Blood is for him a deliberate intellectual decision, much like the ex-investment banker who tries to buy a rural Irish cheese farm in Taylor's story "Pope's Own" (one of his three stories selected for the 2000 Journey Prize Anthology). And Taylor writes from the same worldly position: unlike MacLeod's solemn, tribal incantation, Stanley Park is a funny, name-dropping romp amid prosperous globetrotters. Taylor knows what Halcion and Dolce & Gabbana mean, as much as he knows the local black cod and Okanagan peaches. Best of all, he knows his villain: the wonderfully menacing Dante Beale, whose chain of Inferno coffee bars is the acme of market-researched, rootless globalism. Jeremy is terrible with money, and he quickly cheque-kites his way into an utterly convincing circle of creditors: bank managers, AmEx reps, and vicious, bored 25-year-old lawyers who say, "You've received our letter, Mr. Papier?" His only out is Dante, a slick family friend who wants Jeremy but not his Bloody restaurant, and who relentlessly corners him into captaining a grand new Crips palace.

Stanley Park, like its namesake, covers a lot ground, and some of its subplots, like the true 1953 Babes in the Wood murder of two children in the park, are red herrings, but it is smart and charming. It's a comedy at heart, one that wears its thematic ambitions lightly (with the gall to name its villain Dante and to call Jeremy's first restaurant, which turns into the sort of unwelcome bargain that W.W. Jacobs would have appreciated, The Monkey's Paw Bistro). On a Giller shortlist filled with meticulous historical epics, it's refreshing to see someone give the same close attention to the way we live now. ˛

Tom Nissley

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