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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Canadian Book Advent Calendar (Day 18) - "R" is for Richards and Roy

For this year’s advent calendar, I am recommending Canadian authors/books found on Schatje’s Shelves.  Again, to make things more interesting/challenging, I will use the alphabet, skipping “X” and “Z”.  In total, I propose to focus on 50 Canadian writers, an early nod to Canada's 150th birthday next year.

“R” is for David Adams Richards
Richards is a novelist from New Brunswick whom I consider one of the great Canadian writers.

Novels (which I recommend):
Nights Below Station Street (winner of the 1988 Governor General's Award for fiction)
The Bay of Love and Sorrows
Mercy Among the Children (co-winner of the 2000 Giller Prize)
River of the Broken-Hearted
The Friends of Meager Fortune (longlisted for the 2006 Giller Prize and winner of 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize)
The Lost Highway (longlisted for the 2008Giller Prize, nominated for 2008 Governor General's Award)
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul (See my review at
Crimes Against My Brother 
Principles to Live By (See my review at

Review of Crimes Against My Brother (3 Stars)

This is the story of three troubled blood brothers. Evan Young, Ian Preston, and Harold Dew are actually cousins; as reckless proud teenagers they make a blood pact in which they “challenged one another to be heroic and loyal” (16). Soon, however, they find they cannot remain loyal, and grievances deepen because each is manipulated into thinking one of the others has stolen either money or love from him and so destroyed his chance at a successful and happy future. “’It is awful to be betrayed, and it is just as bad to be accused of betraying friends when you did not’” (40). Over time, the three become bitter enemies, who “seared by betrayal, needed revenge” (156).

There is no doubt that the men are responsible for their difficult lives. They make poor decisions and act impulsively and betray those they love. The author even suggests that betrayal is inevitable because, “The destructive forces in any friendship always end in betrayal” (113). But there are external factors which contribute to their downfall. Chief amongst those is Lonnie Sullivan who reminds me very strongly of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is a greedy, duplicitous, cunning manipulator who constantly whispers innuendos in the ears of the gullible. Of course, his innuendos are always couched in phrases that make him look innocent with only the wellbeing of the listener as his primary concern. Lonnie’s manipulation of Annette Brideau illustrates the extent of his guile. At one point he tells her to marry Harold Dew: “He’s a good man – and smart’” (58); later, he tells her, “’Then use what a woman has to get [Ian]’” (112). He gives contradictory advice because circumstances change and he advocates for the man whom Lonnie thinks will eventually be able to enrich him.

Lonnie is aided in his machinations by gossip amongst the locals: “But there were rumours too, started at the tavern and other places where men while away time and charity” (163). Virtually everyone in the novel is harmed by the malevolence of gossip, “small-town betrayal and gossip [in which] nothing ever really had to be true” (177). Mean-spirited gossip certainly fuels the misunderstandings among the three men. Especially when a person’s life takes a downturn, people “drift away and [say] the same cruel things about [that person] that [he/she] had said about others” (343). For example, Sara, a doctor who returns to her home community after working with Doctors Without Borders with the poor in many places in Africa, is welcomed as a hero: “People could not help liking her and wanting to be seen with her – for she had met Desmond Tutu, she had met Nelson Mandela. So then, in this dreary backwater, she was a blessing” (309). Attitudes change when she expresses an opinion about abortion that does not match community values and people “did lessen her worth whenever they could” and turn her into an outcast (311). The corrosive effect of malicious and misinformed gossip is a major theme in the book.

The plot feels very contrived. Coincidences abound. People’s paths cross by chance and lives are changed. A man bent on murder sees a childhood friend, remembers a conversation he had with her, and “became ashamed, and turned and walked away with the shotgun well hidden” (168). One chance meeting even results in an accidental death (205). Objects, a wrench and fur hat in particular, pass from person to person as if divinely directed. The author seems aware of these coincidences since he even addresses the issue directly through his narrator who says, “Onlookers may think this a story where people are always thinking the same thing” (188).

Interestingly, the author also addresses his own reputation by referring to himself as “the author from their own town who . . . wrote troublesome things” (310). A young boy comes across some of his books, “books others in the town refused to read. He had heard so much of how terrible this writer was, how violent, that at first he himself wanted to throw them away. Yet he began to read this writer who people said they hated and . . . the world of his river open[ed] up like a terrible beautiful blossom that in its countless tragedy had hope of another bloom – and in this world of despair and darkness he saw much beauty . . . and the writer’s love for them” (333).

This novel will do little to change that reputation as it is full of countless tragedy, despair and darkness. The book includes infidelity, theft, beatings, murder, heartbreak, loneliness, family disintegration, suicide, chronic pain, government ineptitude, environmental degradation, and corporate swindling. The whole is unrelentingly grim. I am an admirer of David Adams Richards; in fact, I have argued that his Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul should be required reading for all Canadians. I was, however, disappointed with this novel; at times I found it outright tedious. The constant rumours and envious grudges and the never-ending suffering become repetitive. The characters can be admired for their perseverance, but there is little else to renew my faith in humankind. I found it difficult to see the beauty in this world or the “hope of another bloom.”

This is a complex novel and probably needs to be re-read in order to appreciate its layers; unfortunately, I cannot see myself re-reading it very soon. It is too depressing, and I need to find something more uplifting after this heartbreaking tale.

“R” is for Gabrielle Roy
Roy is considered one of the most important Canadian Francophone writers. 

Novels (which I recommend):
The Tin Flute (Bonheur d'occasion) – winner of 1947 Governor-General’s Award
Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d'eau)
Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault) – winner of 1957 Governor-General’s Award
Windflower (La Rivière sans repos)
Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l'enchantement) – winner of 1987 Governor-General’s Award