This is a peculiar novel. Its blending of magic realism and Gothicism just doesn’t appeal to me.
Harry Steen finds an old book in a bookstore in Mexico; its title refers to an isolated village in Scotland where he lived briefly and where something happened which “would complicate the entire course of [his] life thereafter” (57). That book inspires him to chronicle his life from an impoverished childhood in the slums of Glasgow to his financially secure life in Canada as a successful businessman.
The Wikipedia entry on McCormack states, “McCormack's heroes tend to have an academic/bookish bent, been born in Scotland, and have settled in the same part of Canada that he did. They also travel extensively, often by ship, and meet eccentric fellow travelers who relate to them their life stories and interests.” This is certainly the case with this novel’s protagonist. After graduating from university, he sails to Africa and South America but eventually settles in Camberloo, which seems to be a bizarre blending of Cambridge and Waterloo, two cities in southern Ontario where the author lived. In his travels Harry meets many odd fellows.
It is the number of strange fellows which stretches credulity. There’s Jacob Nelson, a violinist with exhibitionist tendencies; Charles Dupont who becomes involved in horrific surgical/anthropological experiments; and Gordon Smith, a wealthy entrepreneur who enjoyed exotic sexual customs on remote tropical islands. Each of these men has considerable influence on Harry’s life.
Harry is not a likeable character. He is so self-centred and seems to feel himself hard done by, a wronged victim. He admits that he spent his life blaming someone else for his “self-serving behaviour over the years” (384). It is difficult to feel much for someone so self-involved. Every time he drinks he repeats his story of a love lost and becomes maudlin. Yet everything falls into his lap: jobs, sexual encounters, marriage, and wealth. Women are constantly throwing themselves at him as if he were irresistible when there is little attractiveness in his personality.
According to the Wikipedia entry, another characteristic of McCormack’s writing is the use of coincidence, with characters often meeting in unusual circumstances years after they have parted.
Again, this is the case in this novel. Chance and coincidence are found in real life, but the amount of coincidence in the book is problematic.
Apparently, McCormack is also known for self-references and those are found here as well. McCormack’s books include Inspecting the Vaults, The Paradise Motel, The Mysterium, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, and The Dutch Wife. In the novel, the titles in a ship’s library include Inspecting the Faults, The Paladine Hotel, The Wysterium, Last Blast of the Cornet, and A Dutch Life (155). What is the purpose of parodying one’s own titles?
According to the flyleaf, the book is about the “nature of love” and there are statements on that topic like, “’We all wish love would be eternal and exclusive . . . But it rarely seems to be the case’” (146) and “’first love is often a kind of self-love, a delight in the idea of being in love’” (383). At the end of the book, a cloud is lifted and Harry sees how he was wrong about love, but there are no new insights on the subject.
This book will undoubtedly appeal to certain readers, but it failed to be compelling for me. It is not a difficult read by any means, but it lacks focus. There are so many tangents – do we really need to know the life stories of patients in a psychiatric institution specializing “’in artists and academics who’ve somehow gone wrong’” (374)? At one point, the narrator comments, “Book lovers naturally do feel a kind of possessiveness and protectiveness in how they relate to certain authors and books, as though they were pets” (413). This book is not one of my pets!