Archive for May, 2014

CANADA by Richard Ford

Seven of us met up at the Barrels Alehouse, having managed to read the biggest book on our list this year (okay, so I hadn’t quite managed it – but that was down to time constraints rather than lack of will!). Richard Ford’s ‘Canada’ arrived at our book group meeting trailing clouds of glory – described by critics as ‘ A vast, magnificent canvas …one of the first great novels of the 21st century’, and as possessing ‘Pure vocal grace, quiet humour, precise and calm observation’.
The cover blurb reads: ‘When fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons’ parents rob a bank, his sense of normal life is forever altered. In an instant, this private cataclysm drives his life into before and after, a threshold that can never be uncrossed. His parents’ arrest and imprisonment mean a threatening and uncertain future for Dell and his twin sister, Berner. Willful and burning with resentment, Berner flees their home in Montana, abandoning her brother and her life. But Dell is not completely alone.
A family friend intervenes, spiriting him across the Canadian border, in hopes of delivering him to a better life. There, afloat on the prairie of Saskatchewan, Dell is taken in by Arthur Remlinger, an enigmatic and charismatic American whose cool reserve masks a dark and violent nature.
Undone by the calamity of his parents’ robbery and arrest, Dell struggles under the vast prairie sky to remake himself and define the adults he thought he knew. But his search for grace and peace only moves him nearer to a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.
A true masterwork of haunting and spectacular vision from one of our greatest writers, Canada is a profound novel of boundaries traversed, innocence lost and reconciled, and the mysterious and consoling bonds of family. Told in spare, elegant prose, both resonant and luminous, it is destined to become a classic.’
Would ‘Canada’ live up to the hype for us?
We all agreed that the opening line promised much.
‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’
From that point onwards, however, we were split into those who thought the book was over-long and lacked plot, those who loved the voice and the descriptive detail, and those who sat somewhere in-between.
Martin was in the first camp. He writes: Canada: What a disappointment. After the first two lines, one of the best hooks in writing, I was looking forward to an interesting, thought provoking tale. However, the writing immediately turned into porridge and slowly thickened getting more turgid and pointless as the book progressed. Even the two events, the robbery and the murders, were written as though Mr Ford wanted to bore his readers to death. It took great determination to plough on to the end to see if there was any resolution and forty years of marriage and a teaching career could have afforded one but like so much they were lost in verbiage or totally ignored. I learn he married Claire almost as an oversight. We cannot know what others think or feel which is why I turn to fiction for the writer to give me his suggestion for his characters. 511 wasted pages. My life is that much shorter and poorer for them.
Helen felt that, although she found the characters believable, the pace was too slow – partly because we were ‘told, and told again’. Glynis loved the descriptions of Canada and the duck shooting, and she totally believed in the 15 year old Dell – although she was less convinced by Dell’s sister, Berner, who ‘didn’t make sense’. She was gripped by the book but agreed with Martin that a good editor would have improved it. Rose also disliked Berner and, although she thought it a good yarn, found that the slow pace and the flat narrative voice tended to put her to sleep. Paula thought that Dell was a very immature fifteen year old at the start, but that he coped very well with the later incidents. Helen’s favourite character was the flawed father. We all thought the description of the arrest of the parents in their family home – the ordinary and the extraordinary sitting side by side – was particularly strong.
As for me, I found all the character portraits – minor characters as well as protagonists – exquisite, and I relished Ford’s beautiful writing style. His description of the family the evening before the parents attempt to rob a bank is poignant and powerful in its evocation of place and time. I liked the way these flawed characters all moved away from normality in small increments, one decision leading to another until, almost imperceptibly, they had reached the point of no return.
On the whole, we all found something to enjoy about the book, but we would not describe it as the masterpiece some critics claim it to be.
This month’s book recommendation from Paula: ‘Fallout’ by Sadie Jones.
Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

May 2014
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