Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Canada by Richard Ford

First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

So starts one of my most baffling reads of the year.  The story of 15 year old twins Dell and Berner Parsons is told by Dell in a reflective voice from many years in the future.  It is a slow read:  the prose, while laconic and sparse, is powerfully descriptive and evokes a mood that puts the reader right inside the head of the narrator. The pace is anything but thrilling.  However, the story is riveting  because there is enough revealed in the beginning to compel the reader to continue even when the going gets tough.

The characters are not the most attractive people ever portrayed.  In fact, some of them are downright bizarre.  The motivations of the parents are very well explained, even if they aren't very laudatory. The father's previous peripatetic military career has made it difficult for the children to develop normal childhood friendships, or participate in school activities and left them feeling detached from any sense of a permanent home.  The twins themselves are as different as chocolate and vanilla.  Dell is timid, completely lacking in self-confidence, and incredibly unmotivated to do anything on his own. He just wants to enroll and stay in one school and join the chess club. His sister, on the other hand, is spunky, fed-up with the status quo, and in no way willing to continue wasting her time and talents on the current model of family life. 

The book is divided into three parts: Part I takes place mostly in Great Falls, Montana and centers around the life of this nuclear but dysfunctional family headed by a failed salesman father who has delusions of grandeur, and his wife who doesn't have a clue about how to encourage him toward some other lifestyle. In this part, the parents commit their crimes almost as a lark, and their already fractured life really begins to unravel.

The book title led me to believe it was going to be about Canada, or at least would have that country as a setting, but it was not until Part II, page 207 of 432, that Dell begins his journey to Canada.  Once he gets there, we encounter one of the most bizarre collections of characters ever presented.  I found this part of the story especially hard to come to grips with because all of the people who make up the adult world of Dell Parsons are just not the kind of people I'm used to dealing with.  The entire section is one long day after day parade of really unbelievable situations, of ignorance and disregard of the boy, of scenes bringing to mind indentured servitude, or total parental indifference, or incredible lack of any official oversight of either child.  I really couldn't say whether it gives an accurate portrayal of Canada, but it does paint stunning word pictures of the geography and scenery of Saskatchewan.

It is not until the rather short Part III that we get the grown up Dell's reflections on his life and how the events shaped in Montana and then Canada resolved to allow him to become the adult he is as he tells the story. In the end, we finally come to terms with all those unconventional situations and find a character reconciling his past with the present and future.

The whole time I was reading this book, my reactions ranged wildly from really liking it (particularly Ford's way with words), to wanting to throw it across the room at exasperating situations and characters.  The pace was so slow that at times I felt I was wasting my time, that nothing was ever going to happen, but then I'd realize that is often how teen-agers feel about life and I was then able to climb into Dell's skin to see things from his perspective.  When I finished the book, I remember feeling that this was really an exceptional achievement.  It is definitely a great book, and deserves the accolades it has received. I've seen many reviewers who claim it will be a classic (whatever the current definition of that is).  Richard Ford is the only writer ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Faulkner Award for a single novel (Independence Day) and he has given us a reading experience that will definitely remain in the memory of all who immerse themselves in his eloquent, lean and poetic words.

Title: Canada
Author: Richard Ford
Publisher: ECCO (2012) 432 pages,
Genre: literary fiction, mystery
Subject:  murder, parenting, coming of age
Setting: Idaho, Montana, Saskatchewan
Source:  Copy from the publisher for review
Why did I read this book now? It was on the shortlist for the Maine Reader's Choice Award.


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