A WITNESS TO LIFE by Terence M. Green


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Prequel to Green’s Shadow of Ashland (1996) and immensely superior to it. Shadow told of a brother, Jack Radey, who disappears from Toronto during the Depression and for 50 years is not seen again. Then 50-year-old letters from him begin to arrive; a visit to Ashland, Kentucky, brings up his ghost; and still more letters arrive. Such surrealism takes place here again, with the narrator dying and turning into a black starling who sits on phone wires with other starlings and watches his family members grow and die, observing the deaths of others as well, including those in great fires and maritime disasters. We watch a century of Radeys pass through life; know their houses by street and number; their jobs in a variety of Toronto businesses; their illnesses, children, weddings, death notices, funerals. Martin Radey himself is born into a Toronto family with ten sisters and two brothers. His mother dies relatively young. He stays single until his late 20s, when, after a beautiful courtship, he marries a suffragette and has two children (one is Jack, now the focus of the story). Martin has spent his adult life in the receiving department of Don Valley Pressed Bricks and Terra Cotta, and when his young wife dies suddenly, he is left knowing nothing about raising children. A second wife dies of septicemia; Martin goes to live with her sister and mother, then they die; and, finally, his brother Mike has seven children who marry, have children, and die. The entire Radey family, it seems, is a huge flock of starlings, all dead by novel’s end, largely of natural causes. A phenomenal idea, like applying the detail of Joyce’s Dublin or the techniques of Dos Passos’s USA to a single family.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-86672-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Forge
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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