Posts Tagged ‘the Deptford Trilogy’
I’m going to do a few quick write-ups of the last few books I read in 2010. I’m eager to get them out of the way so that I can write about one of my new favorite books, and the first completed in the new year: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins! An excellent start to the reading year, for sure. But, first, a quick look back…
We’ll start with The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor. The Women of Brewster Place is a collection of related short stories, all of which center one or two of the women living in Brewster Place, a low-income housing complex in the city. Many of them have come from the south, and struggle with poverty, relationships, violence, love, and family. I found the stories compelling, and I liked the way that some characters would appear and re-appear in others’ stories. The community felt very real to me, and it was interesting to see how each of the women interacted with it and with each other. But the themes of pain and loss were intense, and by the time they culminated in the final story–which was really disturbing–I felt a bit bogged down by it all. These stories did a good job, I thought, of highlighting issues that disproportionally affect African American women. Unfortunately, the tone of each was very similar, and the lack of differentiation left me feeling lukewarm about the book.
Next up is War Dances, by Sherman Alexie. I took a course in Native American Lit for a semester in high school, where I remember reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and liking it immensely. War Dances, though, didn’t do it for me. Throughout the short stories and poems in this collection, most of which deal with father-son relationships, I caught glimpses of the kinds of insights I’d been expecting from Alexie about Indian identity and masculinity, and some about US pop culture that I hadn’t been expecting but found funny. But, though I liked aspects of many of the pieces in War Dances, I found that I didn’t really like any of the stories or poems all that much as a whole, and even less as a collection. Something about them felt a little trite and unfinished. I’m more than willing to give Alexie another chance, based on the first collection I read and his good reputation, but certainly not on the merit of this book alone.
Finally, we get to The Manticore, by Robertson Davies, one of my new favorite authors! The Manticore is the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, following Fifth Business. In this book, Davey Staunton is seeking therapy after the mysterious death of his father. Throughout the course of his treatment, he must not only come to terms with the true nature of his relationship with his father, but he must also gain a better understanding of the roles played by other key friends and family members in the course of his life’s narrative. It is only once he discovers these characters’ almost philosophical reason for being in his life, or the impact they’ve had on his subconscious, that he may come to feel he has any control over what happens to him. The story is told almost completely through his therapy sessions with Jungian psychoanalyst Joanna Von Haller. Though the book itself might “work” without having read the first in the trilogy, the strange format really only makes sense as the second in a series, I think. I didn’t find Davey nearly as interesting as Dunstan Ramsay, the protagonist of Fifth Business, and was much more interested in his doctor, Joanna. Sadly, we don’t learn much about her or her story in The Manticore. However, Davies has this uncanny ability to write about the most mundane events as if they are the world’s most complex mysteries which, in a way, perhaps they are. The Manticore definitely held my interest in the series, and I’m eager to get to the final book in the trilogy, World of Wonders!
And that about wraps it up, I think. Whew!
I picked up Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies, on the enthusiastic recommendation of a good friend with consistent great taste. So though I had no idea what it was about, I had high expectations which, luckily, were met and maybe even exceeded.
The plot is difficult to describe, and the themes are so big. I will do my best to do this book justice with this post, but it won’t be easy.
Dunstan Ramsay, a school teacher, is disgruntled by the condescending, trivializing article that is written about his retirement in the College Chronicle. He addresses his memoirs to his former headmaster so that at least one person might know that the life he’s led has been an important one.
Dunstan Ramsay grew up in the fictional small town of Deptford, Canada. Through an unfortunate childhood incident involving a snowball and his lifelong friend/rival Percy “Boy” Staunton, Dunstan felt himself responsible for both the “madness” of the town’s outcast Mrs. Dempster and the premature delivery of her son, Paul. His guilt led him to become close to Mrs. Dempster, for whom he gradually developed a sense of reverence and kinship. Despite her unusual behavior, he sees a kindness and beauty in her that no one else does, and his feeling toward her turns to awe after she revives his brother who has been sick and he believes has died. But it’s when he sees the face of Mrs. Dempster in a statue of the Madonna as he’s laying injured on the battle field of Passchendaele during WWI that he is convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a bona fide miracle worker.
So begins his interest in hagiography (the study of saints). Dunstan travels Europe investigating truth: psychological truth, historical truth, and mythological truth. It is mythological and psychological truth which allow him, for example, to interpret both the Bible and Arabian Nights as “true in the same way” (which I love). His background is Protestant; he’s not interested in saints so much for their religious meaning, but for the ways in which they contribute to these different kinds of truths. It is during his travels that he again meets Paul Dempster, a professional magician and illusionist, which adds interesting layers to Dunstan’s exploration of perception, reality, and awe. Upon Dustan’s return home we witness the evolution of his relationship with Boy Staunton, who has never ceased to play a friendly yet antagonistic role in his life.
It may sound as though there are lots of unrelated threads to this story, but it doesn’t read that way. Each character is wholly necessary to the unfolding of events, and will eventually be brought together when Dunstan lets loose a small but vital secret. However, before the events that make up Dustan’s life can form a unified significance, Dustan must determine the meaning of the key players in his life’s narrative. Only then may he learn to reconcile the extraordinary with the real, map his own mythology, and come to terms with his own truth.
This book was mysterious and wonderful. I will be pondering it’s themes and characters for weeks to come, I’m sure. It’s both ambitious and successful. It is the first in the Deptford Trilogy, which also includes The Manticore and World of Wonders, two books I’m now painfully curious about and impatient to get my hands on. I am so glad to have been introduced to Mr. Davies, and pleased to spread the word. Fifth Business deserves as wide an audience as it can get!