Book review: ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford
THE best novels use a well-judged balance of drama, characterisation, background, psychology, setting, pace, tension, emotion and conflict. If one or more of those elements is missing, the result leaves the reader uneasy or disappointed.
When Canada was published, it was widely lauded by critics, who hailed it a modern-day coming-of-age novel. Certainly, it is unformulaic.
Indeed, if psychological analysis rather than story is your thing, this is the novel for you. From the very opening, Richard Ford flags up the significant events in the life of Dell, the narrator, (the bank robbery and murder of two men). So the surprise element is removed, and with it, the suspense and tension.
Some novelists taking this approach might at least compensate with a fast-moving – or at least engaging – plot. Not Ford. Canada keeps you waiting for the plot to start.
The action is slow, and what fills the space is endless analysis: his parents’ psychology in general; their frames of minds as they carried out certain actions; his parents’ backgrounds, his own thought processes and those of his twin sister; once in Canada, descriptions of his surroundings and landscapes; characters’ appearances and speculation on their motives; both his sets of lodgings; clues that form his mental images of other people; his routines.
What emerges from all this – relayed without self-pity – is a complete picture of the background to the bank robbery and the murders, the events that shape Dell’s life.
It’s an interesting exercise in examining what becomes of children cast adrift at a vulnerable age. The novel is peopled by failures: those who have failed to fulfil their potential and are disappointed in life stalk the narrative – Dell’s parents, sister, Charley and Arthur Remlinger. It’s grim and it’s bleak.
And yet, counter-intuitively, Dell stands out as the only character who doesn’t fall into this category, finally emerging, extraordinarily, as a respected teacher and academic. His great capacity for analysis and hunger for learning have served him well.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to repeatedly flag up that a big drama is coming, particularly one that you’ve already outlined, it had better be good when it does happen. Here again, the story falls short. We are told several times that what happens is going to be bigger than merely “a bank robbery” and “two murders”, and while it is all traumatic for young Dell, in essence the surprises are few, and the drama, when it does unfold becomes an anticlimax precisely because of the big build-up.
Arguably, one may wonder whether Ford took inspiration from Great
Expectations – the life story of a young orphan boy caught up in the actions of an older man, and an escaped criminal at that, which shapes his life path. Charley, with his dubious behaviour, filthy home and ponytailed hair, calls to mind Magwitch; Dell the innocent, Pip.
Dickens, however, is a master of plot and suspense, as well as of character, style and setting, and where Great Expectations builds in unpredictability, tension and adventure, Canada offers endless continual background-setting, as if in anticipation of a plot that has not yet begun.
This may symbolise a life oh hold – Dell’s – but it is not the stuff of page-turners. And if suspense is good enough for Dickens, there’s no justification for literary snobbery about it now. It means Canada is no Great Expectations; indeed, it falls short of being a modern classic.
Only the resolution, which unfolds in the final, poignant few chapters, offers any kind of satisfaction. We all want to know what happens to the boy appallingly abandoned by the combination of his parents, the authorities and his sister.
As an adult, Dell counsels his students not to always search for hidden meanings, to be aware that sometimes what you see is all there is – wise words. The suggestion is that there is no meaning beyond the course of events in this novel, a warning not to look for symbolism. Yet are readers not to draw conclusions about the possibility of overcoming appalling childhoods?
That Dell grows up to become a normal, happily married, respectable adult is little short of a miracle, and turns an unremittingly grey tale into an intensely thoughtful if not altogether convincing one.
It is here, in this turnaround that the message of hope lies. It’s just an awfully long time coming.