Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review #11: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

(A wonderful Canadian novel with precisely-drawn characters set in the old West.)

Set in the late 19th century, this is the story of three well-off English brothers: Simon and Charles Gaunt are twins, Addington is their elder sibling, a former soldier and arrogant scoundrel. At the behest of their dictatorial father, Charles and Addington travel to the prairies of the U.S. and Canada in search of the sensitive Simon who has disappeared. Much of the novel concerns their journeys through Indian country – bottles of port and claret rattling in their wagons – with a cast of intricately drawn, fully realized characters.

The small troupe is led through the whiskey-colored light by Jerry Potts, a half-breed, with one foot firmly in each world. The heart of the plot involves the love that Charles, a painter, feels for Lucy Stoveall, a simple but lovely country woman who accompanies them, secretly intent on revenging her sister’s murder. However, the most intriguing character in this marvelous collection of all-too-human personalities is Custis Straw, a bible-reading, heavy drinking Civil War veteran who also loves Lucy but is a man of tremendous dignity well hidden behind a bumbling fa├žade.

The author’s rich language reveals a genuine feel for the prairies and its rough settlements: “a spectacular mulberry dawn”, “a boom town draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps”, “miles of wet plain patched with apple green, new penny copper, glints of silver”.

Though this is a “western” in the traditional sense, Vanderhaeghe never sinks into parody, but has utilized the western motif to reveal a number of profound universal truths about personal honor and human failings and strengths. His humane depiction of character goes deeper than any novel I have read in years

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review #10: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

(In my opinion, Mavis Gallant is the best Canadian short story writer, and one of the best in English. Personally, I think she's even better than Alice Munro. Perhaps it's the settings: I just enjoy reading about Paris and France more than small-town Ontario. Go figure.)

For almost fifty years, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian but a longtime resident of Paris, has been writing some of the most intelligent, captivating short stories in the English language. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, she has won numerous prizes in Canada and elsewhere.

The fifty-two stories in this collection cover the period from the fifties to the nineties and range in length from three to fifty-seven pages. They show Gallant at her best. She writes with a precision that is astonishing. Because she writes stories that are almost geological in their density, the longer ones feel to the reader like novels. In “Speck’s Idea”, she packs four distinct actions into one sentence: “A minute after having pushed the gate and tugged the rusted wire bellpull, he found himself alone in a bleak sitting room, from which his hostess had been called by a whistling kettle.”

Gallant’s venue is Europe, that bent old man of profound culture and deep, troubling memories, that half-continent “with its pettiness and faded cruelty, its crabbed richness and sentimentality”. The majority of her stories are set in France (especially Paris), though they can range from the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Mediterranean.

She molds unforgettable characters of every age, and pictures them with marvelous insight. A reader suspects that Gallant truly loves her characters and her acutely-observed city of Paris. Mavis Gallant tells stories that are completely natural in their structure, refreshing in their light-handed wit and ennobling in their humanity.