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FICTION 25 2 I NEIL BESNER On the evidence of the fiction published by established writers in 1998, 'Canada' now has more and richer resonances than it ever did, within the country and beyond. These include, prominently, renewed attention to narrating conflicting histories oflocal voice and place, as is most splendidly evidentin WayneJohnston's superb The ColonyofUnrequited Dreams (Knopf Canada, 562, $34ยท95). I spent a week with the book and wanted to read it again directly. Jolmston gives us, all at once, a decidedly partial history of Newfoundland from circa 1900, as narrated largely by one Joe Smallwood; the constricted story of this Smallwood's sad family; the traces of the religious tensions woven through all of Newfoundland's arguments with itself; the unfolding of Smallwood's largely unrequited relationship with Fielding, a journalistwhose presence and interleaved commentary question and revise Smallwood's narration; a strategically interspersed and radically abridged history of Newfoundland, cunningly condensed from secondary sources such as D.W. Prowse; an acidic running commentary on the roles of Britain and Canada leading up to Newfoundland's mid-centurypolitica.l transformation; powerful evocations throughout of Newfoundland's bogs, barrens,winds and snowI seasons, sea and landscape - meluding, ofcourse, recurring depictions of St John's and the harbour; several secrets, textual and personal, that underlie a necessarily complex plot (you will not find the denouements herein, dear reader); and all of this in an encyclopaedic narrative that takes these and other differently motivated voices and presences and holds them together while deftly advancing the story. This novel is a major accomplishment, and Smallwood's voice, often unwittingly condemning his ambition out ofhis own mouth, is a masterful achievement in its own right. Why the Maritimes should be the provenance, differently conceived for each, of three of the year's finest novels I cannot say, but that is the case. Along withJohnston's book, Howard Norman's The Museum Guard (Knopf Canada, 310, $32.95) and David Adams Richards's The Bay of Love and Sorrows (McClelland and Stewart, 307, $29.99) should begin to reorient those of us who remain more or less ignorant, wilfully or otherwise, ofthe depth and breadth of contemporary Maritime writing, or of writing set in large part in the Maritimes. Howard Norman is an American writer who sets his fiction in Canada; this is his fourth novel, following on his highly praised The Bird Artist (1994), Very few writers in North America today have so effectively revisited our long and riddling preoccupation with recent European history, and no one, MacLennan included, hasimagined Halifax on so many levels, and Canada as well, looking almost blindly across the Atlantic. Through the voice ofa naIve museum guard who learns everything on the job - a voice most skilfully created and deployed, capable of tones ranging from devout innocence to droll but also deadly irony - 26 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 Norman creates a world located firmly in pre-war Halifax and the museum where DeFoe Russett (ah, Norman's names!) works with his uncle, a firmly moral reprobate with his own significantly idiosyncratic world view. Looking out onto Halifax, the novel depicts, lovingly and rnemorably, the city and port where DeFoe loses his parents in the 1921 crash of a Zeppelin. But the book's real centre is the museum and a11 of its possibilities, its barriers and invitations to meanings, through which Norman presents us with a many-layered and enacted meditation on art and interpretation, as well as on North American misapprehensions of history; most of this begins to emerge via the exhibition of some Dutch paintings that DeFoe watches over. For the sake of his strained love with Imogen Linny, a young woman ofstrong views and mixed ancestry who tends the Jewish cemetery in Halifax, DeFoe steals one of the Dutch paintings for her, Jewess on aStreet inAmsterdam. Obsessed with the painting and its image ofthe woman, with whom she strenuously identifies in the flesh and spirit, Imogen eventually sails to Amsterdam on the eve of the war to find its painter. That major strand of plot, I trust, will signal some of the novel's most urgent symbolic directions. Let me add that this...


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