by Bill Gaston
Published by Raincoast Books
452 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
If you wedge a middle-aged wannabe writer subject to gall bladder attacks into a stolen kayak with a failed mother off her depression meds who is carrying her child's father's ashes in a cigar case and on a quest to bring them to her damaged son, and if you place this sliver of humanity in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada, you have only a fraction of this incredible novel's plot.
Like the waters they skim over as they make their impossible way north, the depths of this book hides surprises at all fathoms.
In her 40s, Evelyn has suddenly been dealt a body blow by learning that her long ago lover, Claude, is dying at the other side of Canada. She lies to her husband, Roy, the mayor of a small Ontario town, and flies to Victoria to be at the bedside of the man she never got over. The landscape also conspires to haunt her. She grew up here; the surrounding waters were the backdrop for their adventures together. Claude's subsequent death disorients her with a resulting upheaval that has a little to do with her leaving the antidepressant pills behind and a whole lot to do with her son, Tom.
Tom is the only child she had nine months after marrying Roy. Tom is an impossible and problematic child who left home ten years ago, after Evelyn gave him his 16th birthday present: the news that it wasn't Roy who fathered him but a wild French-Canadian living in western Canada, a free spirit more at home in the wilds than the city. She hasn't heard from Tom since, but Claude's mutterings of him as he lay dying in the hospital has caused the old pain to resurface. Now she has ditched her plane ticket, suitcase and wallet and we meet her sleeping rough on Cadboro Beach, one of Victoria's yuppie seaside neighborhoods. Our introduction to her is startling, humorous and threatening.
By discarding her money, warm clothes and respectability, is she hoping to gain acceptance into the world she suspects Tom now inhabits? By stealing food, a kayak, and ultimately food and clothing from the women on Gabriola Island who have befriended her, is she hoping for a smile of approval from Claude's mocking ghost?
For there is no question that Evelyn is being chased, every much as she is in pursuit, hunting for her son in a remote area off Northern Vancouver Island, an area called Sointula, itself a failed paradise.
I can't shake the idea of Gaston as a composer. I see him creating three strands, the raw stuff of place, plot and character, the leitmotifs of Evelyn, Tom and Peter which then twist throughout the work. All the time they are mounting, moving toward a crescendo that you know is going to resonate and climate at any moment, just like a symphony where one instrument echoes another, percussion overrides strings, but never defeats them. There is this sense of momentum carried by the actual movement of the characters as they circle, retreat and ultimately race to Sointula.
Along the way there are many other memorable characters. The author is a master at creating characters with deft understatement and dead right dialogue. He is also brilliant with images and symbols that lace the book like the wildlife that leaps and pounces through the landscape: the tangible and the not so tangible.
In addition to authoring four collections of short fiction and four novels, Gaston is a published poet. Poets often make wonderful writers, as they know the value of every word. In addition to a riveting plot and characters that intrigue and often anger, the language urges you to languish even as you speed along to that unimaginable ending, that inevitable final paragraph that seems so right in retrospect.
A drug dealer, a petty thief, a loser; dirty, smelling, starving and thieving, these are not characters you might expect to warm to. You may not, even. It's to the author's credit that it really doesn't matter. | March 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.