Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
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!