Alexis' (The Hidden Keys, 2016, etc.) tale of two men's search for a long-missing poet is a surreal adventure through Canada's fraught racial history.
Alfred Homer, a botanist at a private firm in Toronto, is grieving the first anniversary of his parents' deaths in a car accident. Even worse, his partner, Anne, has decided she doesn't want to marry him. As Alfred recovers from the dissolution of three relationships, relief arrives unexpectedly: Professor Morgan Bruno, an eccentric literary scholar and friend of his parents, calls to invite him on a research project. Bruno studies the poet John Skennen, a writer with the "talent of an angel" who mysteriously stopped publishing in the late 1990s. By driving from Toronto to the Ontario town of Feversham and visiting various small towns in between, Bruno hopes to gather details that will help him finish his biography on the lost poet. Alfred figures the trip will be a relaxing vacation. Besides, he's heard tell that oniaten, a rare plant with mysterious qualities, has been sighted on the outskirts of Feversham. The journey turns out to be an uncanny trip through a bizarre alternate-reality version of Canada. In honor of Canada's white pioneers, the town of Nobleton hosts an annual house-burning celebration, during which crowds watch local families struggle to save their homes from the flames. In neighboring Coulson's Hill, an "Indigenous Parade" offers up meager reparations for the harm Canada's First Nations suffered at the hands of those same white pioneers. Meanwhile, the town of Schomberg hosts a black population that speaks almost entirely in sign language—the legacy of a law that banned freed American slaves from speaking aloud within the town's limits. Over the course of Alfred's journey, the book reveals itself to be a critique of Canada's white supremacist underpinnings. "I don't suppose any place reveals itself to you all at once," Alfred reflects at one point. "It comes at you in waves of associative detail." This book feels like a wave of associative detail which Alexis uses to satirize a racial history that is stranger than fiction. As the novel drags on, though, it begins to feel rudderless; the search for Skennen comes to feel like a thin premise on which to hang a string of surrealist gags. By the time Alfred and Bruno approach a mystical fate in Feversham, the reader has lost any investment in them or their journey.
Funny but thin.