November 23, 2016
I loved this one, a reissue of a 1956 novel by Wees who wrote more than 20 romance and mystery novels. The Keys of My Prison fits comfortably into the contemporary craze for domestic suspense novels; its a terrifically Toronto book*; and it reminds me of Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch the Ends the Night in a vague kind of way. It’s the story of a young wife and mother (and heiress!) whose husband is injured in a car crash, and when he emerges from a coma, he’s not the man he was before. Could the man in the bed really be Rafe or is he an imposter? Or is it possible that none of them really ever knew Rafe at all? *Had a bone to pick with the jacket copy though, which describes the family as residing in their Rosedale mansion, but they in fact live north of St. Clair on Russell Hill Road. There is also a mention of the “Bay Subway” which someone takes downtown (and which stops on the surface at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair?) and I couldn’t figure out what that was all about. But that I cared so much is a testament to the book’s appeal. Heartily recommended.
I liked this novel a lot, and it’s a story that will appeal to anyone who appreciated Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise a few years back, another story about a quirky character with an affinity for a non-human creature. Structurally, Cluck is a bit lacking, a big and sprawling narrative that could use more focus and tautness, but it has charm and the twists are interesting, and I appreciated the humour throughout, as well as the sensitivity with which Rowntree writes about mental illness and social exclusion. (She previously co-edited an anthology of stories about mental illness.) It begins with Henry playing with his farm set at a young age, and moves through his life as he struggles to find a place for himself in the world, build his own community, and discover an outlet for his passion for poultry. In a hopeful and realistic way, Rowntree depicts the complicated experience of a character for whom conformity is not an option, and has her readers plotting along with her on the road to his ultimate triumph.
This book was so good. I must confess that it initially gave me a case of CanLit Inferiority Complex, because the internationally-authored stories were so stellar I wondered how poor old Canada could ever compete. BUT…then I realized that it was just that the pieces in this anthology were so well selected (by acclaimed writers including Ben Marcus, Claire Vaye Watkins, Kevin Barry, Taiye Selasi, Ali Smith) rather than the rest of the world setting the bar so high (I am sure there are middling short story writers in the UK; I just never have to hear about them). AND Canadian literature has two stand-out contributions to this anthology, the amazing Lynn Coady and Alexander MacLeod (whose own story is worth the price of the entire book). My favourite story is Ceridwen Dovey’s “Fixations”, however, which is one of two postpartum stories in the collection and the best story I’ve ever read about an anal fissure. I also appreciated the badassedness of flashing this book’s cover on public transit. Funny too how much the thematic concerns of the anthology cease to be the point, partly because the stories are just so great, but also because sex and death pretty much covers everything you’d ever want to write about.