- Fiction by Established Authors
Michael Ignatieff once wrote, 'We could face the worst if we simply renounced our yearning for certainty. But who among us is capable of that renunciation?' (The Needs of Strangers). This quotation is appropriate for many of the Canadian novels published in 2008, though whether they [End Page 208] point to the power of yearning or to a renunciation of it is unclear. Indeed, many of the novels of the current year are poised at that moment of the not-quite renunciation. They hover on the edge of an optimism that tantalizes yet is perpetually deferred. More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau observed that the great mass of people appeared to be leading lives of quiet desperation. It probably comes as no surprise to hear that this adage is still true and that, indeed, these struggles remain at the heart of contemporary fiction. At times the desperation is not so quiet. The novels published over the past year by many of Canada's established authors focus on the horrifying spectre of endless broken lives - victims of sexual abuse, poverty, racism, physical injury, terminal illness, infidelity, murder, depression, and suicide - but these more jagged examples of human suffering are balanced by endless numbers of characters whose troubles are more ineffable and whose humanity is tested by their relation to these damaged lives. The stories of these badly scarred, dysfunctional lives are often less interesting in themselves than in their effect on others; they are the human catalysts whose plight sets in motion the more complicated struggles of those who must bear witness to their pain. It is difficult to pinpoint the emotional register of many of these novels, which may be what makes them especially unsettling. Their conclusions are often tentative, provisional, ambiguous, pointing towards a vague promise that follows the act of witnessing.
Given the sorts of spiritual thirst and makeshift redemption that run through all of these novels, it may not be surprising that religion plays a major role in some of them, but it is often more closely associated with the alienation that characters struggle with than with the salvation they sometimes stumble onto. Following upon the success of his 2005 Giller Prize-winning novel The Time in Between, David Bergen's The Retreat chronicles the story of Emma Byrd, who drags her family to 'The Retreat,' a two-bit cult run by a self-styled guru prophet known as The Doctor who spouts New Age truisms and, it quickly becomes obvious, considers sex with the women who arrive as part of his mission. Emma, whose utter selfishness is wonderfully dressed up as spiritual need, is the sort of character whose vacuous self-indulgence would be easy to overdo, but Bergen makes the most of the story by depicting her with admirable restraint. Her husband, a decent man who wants nothing to do with the place, but who tries to hold his family together by indulging his wife's whims and covering for her when she decides to abandon the family at The Retreat and abruptly flee to Chicago, is a much sadder but far more compelling character.
Their story converges with a very different tale when the Byrds' teenage daughter, Lizzie, meets a young Native teenager named Raymond. The Retreat opens with a bleak account of old-fashioned racism that makes Emma Byrd's story seem all the more pathetic. [End Page 209] Raymond, having become involved with a local white girl named Alice, is picked up by her uncle, Earl, who happens to be a policeman. Offended that Raymond should have dared to cross the line that ought to protect girls like Alice, Earl detains Raymond on spurious charges, loads him into Raymond's motorboat, and leaves him on a remote island in Lake of the Woods to fend for himself just as the first snows of winter begin to fly. Raymond survives when a barge carrying propane to cottages spots him, but not until he's had to fend for himself for more than a week. What is most chilling, however, is how little comes of the event. Raymond understands local politics too...