Two midlife crises are enriched and transformed by the Canadian near-wilderness in this ambitious novel from the Ontario author of Mount Appetite (2005).
It’s a precisely woven tapestry that gradually connects the odysseys and labors of its three protagonists. Transplanted Englishman Peter Gore has left his marriage and his job as a biology teacher to explore northwestern British Columbia, as far as the village of Sointula on Malcolm Island (off Vancouver), where the pristine past lives on, and where Finnish emigrants had established a utopian community (“Sointula” being Finnish for “harmony”). Fortyish Evelyn Poole has abandoned her husband Roy (mayor of an Ontario hamlet), summoned to the deathbed of her long-ago lover Claude Longpre. Following Claude’s death, she forms an oddball alliance with Peter, en route to Sointula and a reunion with her estranged son Tom, who left the family long before she did, during his troubled (“sociopathic”) adolescence. Meanwhile, Tom Poole has become a “whale man,” assisting in ecology student Catherine Macleod’s research, living with wounds sustained when a botched drug deal precipitated a gun battle, and waiting for his past to catch up with him. Gaston moves among their several stories with masterly skill, filling in narrative gaps with perfectly judged flashbacks (to Tom’s youth; Evelyn’s stultifying marriage; ecstatic years with Claude; and recent vigil at his deathbed), while painting an astonishingly detailed picture of a world so distant it seems indeed to belong to another time. Characterizations of Evelyn and Peter are particularly rich and searching (when they talk about sex, the book reaches irresistible comic heights), and the resolution of their quests, in an extended dénouement comprising one brilliant scene after another, is virtually beyond praise.
Gaston may be to Canadian fiction what Ken Kesey was to American fiction of the 1960s: a renegade lyricist with a soaring, ineffably generous narrative imagination.