by Bill Gaston
ISBN: 1551927195

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A Review of: Sointula
by Shannon Cowan

Bill Gaston is not afraid to take risks, and in his latest novel, Sointula, his exploration into the sacred and profane heart of coastal British Columbia is a quest of Quixotic proportions.
With such accolades as the Timothy Findley Award, a Giller Prize nomination, and the Canadian Literary Award for Fiction under his belt, not to mention twelve other books of prose, poetry, and drama, Gaston deserves to have a wide readership by now. That he situates himself outside the literary centre of Canada-first in New Brunswick where he served as editor of The Fiddlehead, and now in pastoral Victoria, "the farthest west a body can go"-is perhaps one reason for the delay. Another may be that he tackles characters who are less than popular by literary standards: Bobby Bonaduce, for instance, the scarred and broken hockey player of The Good Body; or the gambling addicts and embittered, illegitimate children that people his short story collections, like Sex is Red and Mount Appetite. Sointula may be the book that brings him to the rest of Canada and beyond.
At the centre of his fifth novel is the real-life colony of Sointula, founded by Finnish immigrants, off the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, at the turn of the last century. At the book's centre is also the idea of personal utopia, that metaphysical place where reality is blissful and everything makes a good deal of sense. Sointula, after all, means "place of harmony" in Finnish, and what better place to find congruity than on the edge of the sea?
Striving to reach Sointula physically and spiritually are two characters thrown together by attraction and circumstance. Evelyn Poole is a middle-aged first lady, wife to the mayor of Oakville, who at the book's opening embraces a life of ocean-going vagrancy after witnessing the death of her former lover in a Victoria hospital. Peter Gore is a displaced American (formerly a displaced Brit) who has shucked off his life as a biology teacher to write a travel book about Vancouver Island. Together they head northwest in a stolen kayak, seeking the place where Evelyn's estranged son is watching whales.
It's the classic pull of the characters' individual journeys that initially propels the story through prose dense with rumination. Gore's book, tentatively titled The Rim, ventures that Vancouver Island is the last place on earth left to go. When he isn't fiddling with his five thousand dollar computer and solar battery pack, scratching his brain for compelling sentences that inevitably end up on the trash heap, he is seeking "to make the sun move slower in the sky" by defining a place, a sensation, a moment in time, and attempting to understand the edge of the world.
Evelyn, on the other hand, is coming off her dedicated use of anti-depressants. She's grieving the loss of her lover, her life's choices, and the disappearance of her son, by dropping all contact with civilization. Laden with their respective baggage, Peter and Evelyn make painstaking progress up Vancouver Island's east coast. There are obstacles, including pesky gall bladder attacks (Peter's), hallucinations (Evelyn's), and a painful shortage of food. When the pair reaches a much-needed turning point, Peter finally asks himself what he is doing with this woman. He wonders whether she even wants to get where she's going? At last Gaston ups the stakes, and the novel moves from meandering inner narrative to external events with more precise consequences. Evelyn grows and reveals herself; Gore entertains with giddy witticisms. Evelyn's son, Tom, well, he just looks for whales.
Longer novels take warm-up time, and Gaston uses these first chapters to situate us in his characters' minds and lives. His writing is sharp, and his observations comic but revealing. Even Evelyn's zig-zagging has purpose, and anyone with a rudimentary sense of British Columbia geography will be glad when Peter puts his finger on what seems like an outsider's inept navigation. (Gladder still when he and Evelyn hatch an alternate plan. Aside from sunburn and sore muscles, the pair were undoubtedly bound to develop giardia lamblia if they continued to drink out of unfiltered creeks.)
As outsiders themselves, Evelyn and Peter make excellent vehicles for readers coming to terms with Vancouver Island's wild side, and their banter often takes the form of a travelogue: "Gore grunts a hollow agreement. Sointula...The Finns that stayed-about two hundred-settled into socialist poverty, fishing. In the late sixties a second smash of utopians moved up from urban America, barging in on the Finns and bringing their acid and alfalfa sprouts and naked dances under solstice moons, whereupon Sointula enjoyed several more fires, and more than one shooting."
Fans of Gaston will find the same backhanded observations, the same surprising insights and gleeful perversities shared by the characters as in his previous books. He excels at getting inside hearts of all ages-from bullet-injured Tom Poole to snivelling, sodden (and gasp, utterly sentimental) Peter Gore. His characters are strangers, fish out of their proverbial waters, emerging from the well-lit backdrop of post 9/11 cynicism and earthly destruction to a shaky and often drug-induced clarity. Their world is crumbling, but they are artful and humane. As Gore aptly points out during his liaison with bad TV, "... the shittiest manure gives rise to the most vigorous plants."
Which brings us back to risks: Gaston's characters may be exotic orchids in the manure of reality, outstanding when lamenting the demise of Vancouver Island wilderness, its infiltration by tourists, and the results of septic-induced algae blooms, but they are less convincing when doing things like conjuring wildlife in unlikely places and separating orca lore from science. They have an outsider's tendency to misplace landmarks and undersell the locals, ascribing this trait to whites and that trait to natives, when they might just as well see the opposite is true upon closer inspection. And their missteps can't always be chalked up to differing homelands, when at least some of them should know what they're looking at. As a result, Gaston's treatment of his setting at times approaches the sort of commonplaces his characters spend much of their time criticizing.
I can forgive these glitches in authenticity because Gaston is a skilled writer who has done for Vancouver Island what Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston, and a host of other contemporary writers have done for Newfoundland-that is, immortalize it on the national and probably international stage. I can and I will. But it's for these same reasons that I'm able to do so only grudgingly. Skill and the gift of enduring fame don't excuse the seasoned writer from creating believable worlds for his readers, and Gaston's tendency towards oversimplification may raise eyebrows in a readership that undoubtedly includes a giant swath of British Columbians (not to mention the entire literate population of Sointula, who, you can be sure, are wondering who this guy is and why he didn't stay for dinner).
That aside, Gaston has crafted a celebration of B.C.'s coast, heavy with insight and all the passion of an islander's proprietary eye. His latest book vividly captures the coast's rhythms, its natural beauty, and its challenges. Gaston stresses repeatedly that the book's title is ironic-that a colony of people presumptuous enough to name their community after a nirvana-like state of spiritual contentment, attainable for monks or Sufis alone, can only come to failure. (In Sointula's case, the colony suffered after fires, free love, and near starvation divided its founding members. It exists today as a modern village, home to one of the oldest running cooperatives in North America.) I would argue that the book's title is also meant to be taken seriously. Despite the humour (fumbled drug deals, fumbled sexual encounters, and fumbled masturbation in a kayak, which is at least as Canadian as Berton's fornicating in a canoe), Tom, Evelyn, and Peter do find what they're seeking. Like the island's previous inhabitants, their search may have an unanticipated end, but it's a state nevertheless approaching-dare I say it?-harmony.

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