"Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself. When I think of those times... it is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I’ve crossed."
Although I'm not one to read books because they're trendy or just because they show up on the New York Times bestseller lists, and although normally I'm drawn to books that most people would never read, after seeing the blurb on the inside dustjacket cover of this book, I knew I had to have it. The first words are what got me: "First, I'll tell about the robbery that our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." I thought, well, if this character is going to take me into his confidence enough to tell me about these things that he and his twin sister went through, why shouldn't I sit down, grab a cup of coffee and listen to him. This may sound a little bit stupid, but the entire time I was reading this book, it seemed as though I was actually hearing this man's voice talking to me. I can't say that I've ever had this experience with a novel before -- that's how captivating this entire story was for me.
In 1960 Bev and Neeva Parsons of Great Falls, Montana, left their home one day to carry out a bank robbery that would end up having far-reaching, unpredictable results. As it turns out, although Dell Parsons, their son and the narrator of Canada, notes that the robbery is "the most important part," a jumping-off point of sorts that led him and his sister Berner to set out on two different and unexpected paths, he's not in any great hurry to tell us about the specific details of that day, and he has a few other things to say in the meantime. As he very clearly states at the beginning,
"... the great critic Ruskin wrote that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. Which means it's for the composer to determine what's equal to what, and what matters more and what can be set to the side of life's hurtling passage onward."From this point on, it's clear that while we're going to get to the robbery and the events that took place afterward, we have to just be patient and wait a bit. And although the reader may want to get to that most important event, it is Dell, now in his 60s, who is telling the story, and he's going to tell it in his own way and his own time. We just need to give him the space to do so.
Related in three parts, the novel starts in Great Falls, Montana in 1960, and takes us through life in the Parsons family when Dell is 15. Actually, it's a while before Dell's name is even mentioned, but this part of the book lays the groundwork for all of the events that will later transpire. It encompasses, among other things, his parents' marriage after a night of celebrating leading to her pregnancy, his mother's refusal to "assimilate," their transient lives as a military family, his father's discharge from the Air Force and a series of failed jobs and shady schemes afterwards, his sister's growing desire for independence, and his own wish to go to school, play chess and keep bees, which, according to his Bee Sense book, "unlocks the mystery to all things human." While these things may seem insignificant and perhaps trivial at times, they're all connected in Dell's mind as he tries to explain his parents "edging toward the point of no return," as things moved toward "bad as could be." As he explains:
"It's best to see our life and the activities that ended it as two sides of one thing that have to be held in mind simultaneously to properly understand--the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous--one so close to the other. Any different way of looking at our life threatens to disparage the crucial, rational, commonplace part we lived, the part in which everything makes sense to those on the inside--and without which one of this is worth hearing about."At the same time, he gives the reader little glimpses as to what's coming, whetting the reader's appetite for more: while we haven't actually heard the events transpiring on the day of the robbery , he tells us little pieces of what he knows about it from newspapers and from what others have told him later. He also shares his mother's feelings leading up to her participation that he later discovers in her prison-cell writings she calls "Chronicle of a Crime Committed by a Weak Person," all before he even gets to that event. But really, it's not the robbery that is the true focus here: the real meat of this story is found in what happens afterwards.
In Part Two, Dell has been taken to a new life, to stay with Arthur Remlinger, the brother of his mother's friend, and a man who crossed the border years ago along with his own secrets that will ultimately lead the reader to the promised murders. Neeva had made arrangements for the two to be taken to Fort Royal, a god-forsaken town on the Saskatchewan prairie, but only Dell has made the journey, Berner having already taken off before their mother's friend shows up to collect them. He is taken to work with Charley Quarters, in nearby Partreau, a Métis living in an old trailer who sometimes shows up with remnants of eyeliner or rouged cheeks on his face and who makes Dell uneasy by his creepy comments. Dell will also spend time working in Remlinger's hotel, which is busy during hunting seasons. Eager to have more time with Arthur, Dell is happy about the move, and at some point believes that Arthur "needed him to be his special son." He finds himself allowing his feelings for his parents "to go below the waves" of his thinking, letting himself be "taken up" by Arthur, a "man he felt he could emulate at a later time."
Part three is only a few pages long, catching Dell at age 66, catching up with his sister who is now terminally ill, and reflecting on the "thousands of mornings" his mother once told him he'd have "to wake up and think about all this."
If you've thought about reading this book and the promise of a boy's parents committing a robbery and then later the occurrence of two murders is why you're interested, keep this in mind: it isn't the actual crimes that are important here but it's all about what comes afterward. This is not a novel of crime fiction at all, nor is it a fast-paced thriller of any sort. Not even close. It's more a book about lines and borders crossed, about boundaries, about family, about how certain things in our lives direct us in ways we may never have considered, about trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of those events. Without looking back too much on any what-ifs, in later life Dell has come to accept the way his life has turned out, noting that he believes "in what you see being most of what there is, that "...life's passed on to us empty."
Canada is just a super book in so many ways. The author's descriptions paint not only pictures but create full-on tableaux. His use of dialogue is never overdone, his characters are all fully realized. The way he describes Dell and Berner growing up in the military, being reluctant to make friends or get used to being in one place was spot on -- I grew up under the same circumstances and the way he wrote about it sent me back to that very lonely way of living. And like Neeva, I really never got the point of assimilating either -- sometimes I still fight it. But what really got to me about this book was the way in which I could actually hear the older Dell's voice in my head, as if he were sitting here talking to me himself, as if he had a story that he really wanted me to hear. It was certainly the only time that's ever happened when I've read a novel, a most unique experience that surprised me. Although many readers have complained that the book is slow moving and even slow to get started, lacking a plot and boring, I didn't see it that way at all. Au contraire -- it's amazing and beautifully written, a novel that will not soon be forgotten after you've finished it.
While mine is only a non-English major/casual reader's review that explains my personal take on this book, there are some superb professional reviews out there: I would like to especially make note of Theo Tait's review in the London Review of Books , July 5 (I hate to link to a subscriber site --sorry -- but it's an awesome review), Michael Dirda's review in the New York Review of Books, July 12th, and that of Andre Dubus in the New York Times.