A commitment to nonviolence provokes a lengthening history of violent and destructive reprisals—in Toronto author Richards’s thoughtful, unfortunately portentous tenth novel, which shared Canada’s Giller Prize with Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.
The intense narrative is framed by a Prologue and Afterword in which 25-year-old Lyle Henderson, a native of rural New Brunswick’s Miramichi River towns, grapples with the legacy of his father Sydney’s saintly passivity. We soon learn (from Lyle) that as a boy Sydney had impulsively pushed another boy off a church roof, and thereafter (seeing his “victim” unharmed) vowed to God that he would never harm another human being. Richards’s backward-and-forward narrative, whose major events occur throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, gradually discloses the paradoxical harm occasioned by Sydney’s resolute pacifism: he’s accused (falsely) of robbery, arson, sabotaging a newly built bridge, fathering an illegitimate child, and neighbors inflict abuse and worse as well on his docile wife Elly, gentle albino daughter Autumn and Christlike innocent son Percy, as well as on their increasingly frustrated sibling Lyle. Do bad things happen to good people? Oh, they do, gentle reader, they do. If you think all of this sounds like Dostoevsky filtered through Hardy and early D.H. Lawrence, you’re not far afield. The best confrontational moments here do achieve genuine drama, and the large cast accommodates several vividly drawn eccentrics and malcontents (the best being the casually satanic Mat Pit, the Hendersons’ tireless mortal enemy). But Richards overloads the story with far too many windy debates about religion and ethics, and can’t resist making broad caricatures of such peripheral figures as wealthy industrialist Leo McIver and ingenuous social worker Deirdre Whyne (!). Even worse are such thinly disguised authorial interpolations as Lyle’s grandiose ham-fisted characterization of evil Mat Pit: “He—from a certain perspective—ruled our road and took that precious air from everyone else’s dreams.”
Mercy Among the Children is of interest for the rugged integrity of its conception, design, and emotional intensity. Its prose is another story.