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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Amazing how much actually happens in Davies's short novel Fifth Business

The first volume of Robertston Davies's Deptford trilogy, Fifth Business (I won't even bother to try to explain the ridiculous title - couldn't an editor have helped him out?) ends w/ what seems to be a murder. I won't give anything away - but will note that the "jacket" copy of the Penguin pb I'm reading did give too much away; thanks, guys. Not sure if we'll learn more about this death in subsequent volumes (I believe Davies did not initially envision Fifth Business as part of a trilogy). Throughout, I found this novel readable and engaging. Davies is a writer full of incident and conversation; it's kind of amazing how much actually happens in this novel, including the narrator's childhood in the small eponymous Canadian village, his career as a boarding-school teacher, his journeys to Europe and to South America in pursuit of his scholarly interest in saints and in magic, his wartime experiences and his recovery (in England) from serious battle injuries, his hero's homecoming - just for starters. But the main tenet of the novel is the narrator's relationship to two characters: his boyhood friend and rival Boy Staunton and the woman whom he believes may be a saint but who spends most of her life, under his guardianship, in a series of mental institutions. That's a lot for a 250-page novel - but it's easy to follow, if at times hard to take seriously, or at least literally, Davies's interest in the supernatural leads him to touch the hem of magic realism: a character seems to die and then, touched by the saint-like woman (Mrs. Dempster), comes back to life: Was it a miracle? Or was it, as the town doctor says, a wrong observation and the boy never actually died? Davies leaves the possibilities open - maybe to be clarified in later volumes. I have to say that I was most drawn to the realistic settings, particularly the childhood (and the return from war as a hero) in Deptford - less so to the lengthy discussions of faith and sainthood and magic shows. I may continue, however.

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