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Reviewed by:
  • Canada as Gothic Tale
  • Donna Bennett
Justin D. Edwards . Gothic Canada: Reading the Spectre of a National LiteratureEdmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005. xxxiv + 194 pp. $34.95

The picture is incomplete, part left outthat might alter the whole Dü rer landscape:gothic ancestors peer from medieval sky . . .

Al Purdy ('Wilderness Gothic')

As the list of works cited in Justin Edwards's book suggests, the Gothic already has been an important topic in Canadian literary discussions. Indeed, although extensive, Edwards's bibliography is not exhaustive, particularly with regard to Canadian titles: it might also have included, for example, Eli Mandel's essays 'Atwood Gothic' and 'A Lack of Ghosts: Canadian Poets and Poetry,' as well as some of the pertinent Canadian and non-Canadian essays by Northrop Frye.

Enriched by Edwards's knowledge of European and American literatures, Gothic Canada does bring fresh treatments of individual works of fiction, drama, and film, but the overall analysis is not satisfying. Nearly all the texts in this study are drawn from the last three decades of the twentieth century: they are important to the argument but do not support Edwards's assumption that they are representative of Canadian culture as a whole - nor are they good representatives of those Gothic narratives that can be found in Canada.

Part of the reason this selection may be idiosyncratic is Edwards's suggestion that 'Canadian neo-Gothicism' is a 'spectre' shaping Canadian literature and culture. This thesis - that a genre can shape a nation's ongoing sense of identity and its writing - recalls earlier arguments about unifying Canadian national themes. It is unconvincing here because the genre on which he focuses is particularly tied to its own literary history. The English Gothic was the product of early Romanticism and of the Neo-Romanticism of the late Victorian era. In both cases, it was [End Page 1095] a backwards glance at an imagined earlier society (that of medieval culture), warped to stand in contrast to an idealized present.

In order to draw on the Gothic to analyze works from a later milieu and time and to give it a meaning for Canada, Edwards doesn't look for generic consistency but relates the works he treats to aspects of the genre, finding in each some Gothic conventions or tropes, if sometimes in only a small part of the narrative. Thus Edwards can begin with two early tales - John Richardson's Wacousta (1832) and James De Mille's Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) - to show that the Gothic's characteristic encounter with a threatening unknown has been important in Canadian experience. He follows that with a reading of Jane Urquhart's The Whirlpool (1986) to establish the appearance in Canada of the Gothic version of the encounter with the sublime. The importance in Gothic literature of malaise and the estrangement of the familiar he finds in books he otherwise identifies with realism: F.P. Grove's A Search for America (1927), Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House (1941), and David Adams Richards's Mercy among the Children (2000 ).

Up to this point, Edwards has focused on conventional elements of the Gothic as a genre; however, to show that the nation is more generally is associated with Gothic attitudes, he generalizes from the story of the individual whose well-being is threatened to read the Gothic analogically. In approaching Anne Hébert's Kamouraska (1970) and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996), the conventional setting of Gothic fiction in a misty version of the ruined past can be displaced onto novels that use specific historical places and times by turning legal systems into Gothic villains and murderers into victims. This turning of oppressive conditions into Gothic villain also allows him to treat as Gothic the urban isolation and emptiness felt by the characters in Brad Fraser's play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (1989) and in Andrew Pyper's short stories collection, Kiss Me (1996 ). Broadening his application of the Gothic still further, Edwards also considers two life stories of native women - Maria Campbell's Halfbreed (1973) and Yvonne Johnson's Stolen Life: The Journey...


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