In Tombs’ (Robber Baron, 2007, etc.) historical novel, a Canadian author/filmmaker navigates disquieting family secrets, romance, politics, freelance journalism, and phantoms.
Richard Grey is born into an unusual Montreal family that lives near the St. Lawrence River. His mentally ill mother, Augusta, is sent to an asylum for several years, and the feckless and evasive family patriarch, Reginald, is often absent on railroad-connected business. As a result, Richard’s benevolent but domineering American grandmother, Blanche Grieve, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, runs the household. Her fondness for cats causes the allergic Richard to spend several years wearing a gas mask in the house—cementing the youth’s outsider perspective (“I now saw the world through glass eyepieces, which tended to fog up”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, journalism and writing become the boy’s passions, and he has a rich fantasy life that, among other things, transforms Augusta into an imprisoned secret agent; there’s a subtle reference to Patrick McGoohan in the TV show The Prisoner. Richard also has an imaginary muse/lover named Luciola, a lab-created woman imbued with firefly DNA, which makes her sport wings and glow. After attending grim Dystopia High School, Richard works his way through college by freelancing, including for the BBC, and, by 1975, he’s reluctantly covering the Quebec separatist movement; one of its leaders, an unctuous press baron, is clearly inspired by Conrad Black, the subject of a previous nonfiction book by Tombs. The Canadian writer/filmmaker’s first novel is a seriocomic dysfunctional-family saga and magical-realist coming-of-age tale that will put some readers in mind of John Irving’s work—if Irving had a fondness for hockey. The well-drawn characterizations carry along a plotline that seems a bit too bumpy and meandering for its own good. Fortunately, the characters are sympathetic, vulnerable, and oddball enough to make the rocky journey worthwhile, and some of Tombs’ details—especially in his portrait of a shady book publisher—have an impressive realism.
An effective novel of family and society from a writer with a flair for the offbeat.