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 A jovial but haltingly uneven tale of how several generational strands came to form one eccentric family. In rural Wales, a devout Methodist family rises slowly from poverty to 19th-century mercantile respectability, only to be spiritually and financially broken through a combination of hubris and bad luck. Davies's depiction of how the descendants of Samuel Gilmartin came to emigrate to British North America convincingly blends gritty humor--including a hilarious Welsh cursing contest- -with sympathetic portrayals of his characters. But operating at several registers below this Welsh plotline is the earlier, and much more thinly drawn, episode of how the Loyalist Gage family emigrated to Upper Canada following the American Revolution. The Gages never fully come to life, and when they paddle a canoe up the Hudson River all the way to Ontario, we've departed from familiar Davies territory and entered the realm of historical romance. Moreover, the two family episodes are organized around the kind of premise that is great fun at first, but that quickly begins to look irrelevant: the spirit of a recently murdered man finds himself attending a film festival alongside his murderer, a persnickety arts-critic nicknamed ``the Sniffer.'' While the Sniffer reviews official festival fare, his murder victim, Connor Gilmartin, is captivated by documentary footage covering his family history, which he alone can see. Strapped to this structural frame, the two plotlines inevitably begin to wobble. And though the trademark Davies preoccupations are here--skeletons creaking in the familial closets, money, spirituality--they're pitched far below the high- water mark the author achieved with What's Bred in the Bone (1988) and Lyre of Orpheus (1989). Minor work from a major talent--though there are enough flashes of former glory here to make this a must for serious fans.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-670-84189-7
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1991


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