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Pickle Me This

November 10, 2010

The Carnivore by Mark Sinnett

I first learned of The Carnivore when it was on the shortlist for the Toronto Book Award, and its author Mark Sinnett was reading an excerpt on the radio. The excerpt was intriguing, featuring a husband and wife meeting together on the shore of Lake Ontario as swimmer Marilyn Bell completed her crossing of the lake in 1954. The simple dynamic between the couple belied something darker and deeper, and the historical detail was inconspicuously well done. When The Carnivore ended up taking the prize, I knew that I had to read it.

When Ray Townes is in the final stages of emphysema, he and his wife Mary look back on the course of their marriage, and how their lives hinged on Hurricane Hazel, which ravaged Toronto in October 1954. The couple doesn’t look back together, however, the book consisting of alternating chapters from their two solitudes. The effect of this is interesting, as we learn that each of them has their own secrets about how much they know about the other and what they’ve chosen to withhold.

Ray is a police man who spent the hurricane rescuing citizens clinging to rooftops and washed out bridges. What the newspaper articles profiling his heroics fail to reveal, however, is that his courage that night stemmed from a mania that arose from a terrible act he’d committed, and that while he was supposed to be on duty, Ray had been driving around the city with his mistress. Mary is aware of all of this, however, which is why she resents the rehashing of events as the 50th anniversary of the hurricane approaches. She has never been able to forgive her husband for what he did and what he took from her, and now her own traumatic memories of the hurricane have been awakened– she was a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and witnessed horrific injuries that night she’d never been able to forget.

Sinnett’s depiction of the hurricane– the rushing rivers, the broken bodies in the hospital, the force of nature that tore its way through a city– are the most compelling aspect of the novel. They are riveting, illuminating and unflinching in their portrayal of a tragedy that seems to have been whitewashed by years of familiarity– like Hazel was somebody’s elderly aunt who came visiting once. Sinnett deftly uses detail in the story to describe the hurricane and the more general atmosphere of Toronto in 1954, his historical fiction not toned by sepia even though the book is structured as a reflection.

The back-and-forth in the narrative, and that the story is told to the reader rather than immediately experienced makes the plot read a little mechanically at times. Similarly the characters, who we’re permitting such a limited perspective of by their own voices and the partner’s perspective. Though some of the gaps Sinnett leaves in the character are interesting– we don’t get all the answers about why they’ve done the things they have, and that space to ponder is particularly engaging.

The Carnivore is a worthy recipient of The Toronto Book Award, a deserving book that will strike a chord with readers from Toronto and elsewhere. A book that uncovers another layer to a city we think we know.

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