An unrelentingly literary fairy tale about a young pair who come together on an island near an unnamed Canadian city and relieve each other’s grief over the death of a loved one.
Levon Hawke, a student of medical history—quotes from William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of blood, adorn each chapter—is convicted of breaking and entering after mistaking a stranger’s house near his college for his own (on the other side of Canada) while distraught over the death of his sister Alice (as in Wonderland). Released from prison over two years later and still grieving for Alice, Levon heads to an island where an unknown relative has offered him a job as an assistant baker. Having missed the ferry, he walks across the ice and lands on the island in the dark. Lost and half-frozen, he stumbles into an abandoned house, where he finds Obdulia Limb about to poison herself. Obdulia’s mother Hereword hung herself in the same house ten years earlier. Soon enough, it unfolds that Obdulia’s sinister but charismatic father, Elias, is now married to Levon’s great-aunt, whose grandson is Simon the baker—who bakes not only bread but also whole people. Simon and Elias soon enlist Levon in their plot to win the Babbitt’s Feast cooking-contest prize (a Sinclair Lewis version of Babette’s Feast?) by raising the spirit of Obdulia’s mother in a bread re-creation that will cure Obdulia of her maternal fixation. But after Levon and Obdulia finally overcome their shyness and mutual grief to acknowledge their love, Levon finds a way to destroy Elias and Simon’s plot. As with any fairy tale, there aren’t many surprises, although the happy ending (when Obdulia declares she’ll now “be mother”) has a slightly ominous ring.
Canadian Sterns (Thinking About Magritte, 1992) is too clever by half. Metaphors, literary allusions, and wordplay overwhelm a fragile plot, while the charm of an eccentric cast of characters wears thin.