McClelland & Stewart, 1998
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review By: Kerry Riley
I came to André Alexis’s recent novel, Childhood somewhat indirectly, having first been attracted to his earlier collection of short stories by its irresistible title, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa. Anyone, I felt, who could create that title (if it were he, rather than his publisher) should not be overlooked as a writer. In the end, however, it was his less spectacularly titled first novel which really hooked me as an Alexis fan.
Alexis, who was born in Trinidad, moved to Canada when he was three years old, currently lives in Toronto, and is not quite famous – yet. Recognition for Childhood – it was short-listed for the 1998 Giller, won the 1999 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was co-winner of the Trillium Book Award – has, happily, done a lot to change that.
His debut novel begins and ends six months after the death of the “parents” of Thomas, the narrator. The word “parents” must be presented in quotes because although Katarina MacMillan was indeed, Thomas’s biological mother, she rarely behaved in a way that would be easily recognized as parental, and although Henry Wing, who died one day after Katarina, is never clearly defined as Thomas’s real father, he was, nevertheless, a genuine father figure.
A period of intense self-examination, catalyzed by the deaths and by that fact that socially-challenged Thomas seems, for the first time in his adult life, to be contemplating the possibility of a serious relationship of his own, leaves him with several key questions about life and love.
“Was I the only one,” he wonders “who knew so little about the deceased.?”
“Did I know anything at all?”
“Can one love what one doesn’t know?”
Clearly, Thomas has come to the conclusion that one can not love what one does not know, and that if he, himself, is to have any chance at love, he must let someone (preferably the mysterious Marya, of whose shoulders he dreams) know him. Some intuition (possibly obsessive or paranoid) has led him to believe that his developing relationship with Marya, whom he has known for about a year, could be in trouble. One suspects that Thomas’s difficulty with intimacy could be the root of the trouble. In an effort that the reader only gradually comes to recognize as heroic, Thomas sets out to show himself to Marya, (and understand himself) through the printed word.
The key to Thomas, Thomas seems to feel, lies in his childhood, and so he endeavours to explain himself by recounting, in a long, quasi-letter to Marya, what he remembers of it. Adroitly sidestepping one of the more serious dangers inherent in a confessional structure, Alexis allows no wallowing – no angst-ridden soliloquies here. Thomas never blames, his personal pain is revealed only obliquely and his plea to be understood in light of these experiences must be read between the lines.
The MacMillan family troubles really began with the early, accidental death of Thomas’s grandfather. This unfortunate event, in some not-quite-definable way, wrecked the relationship between Katarina, Thomas’s mother and Edna, his grandmother. Thomas, a product of Katarina’s rebellion, is abandoned by her to be raised by his resentful, failing grandmother. His beginnings did not auger well for a healthy emotional development. In one of his many loaded, but darkly hilarious understatements, Thomas explains, regarding his grandmother’s death that, “I would have realized she was dead much sooner, if we’d been a little more affectionate…” Nevertheless, he was heartbroken when she died – her sense of duty, relative to Katarina’s was, to this point, his only understanding of love.
Things take a decided turn for the worse upon the arrival of his restless mother, in the company of the man of the moment, to reclaim him. The bickering, nearly destitute couple drags ten-year-old Thomas across central Ontario on their way to Montreal, his mother betraying him in a shoplifting incident in the process. Eventually also abandoned, just outside of Ottawa, Katarina is forced to seek refuge for herself and her son, at the Ottawa home of Henry Wing.
Henry, an independently wealthy eccentric, whose two lifelong passions are the collection of ideas, and, more inexplicably, Katarina, is a seriously charming character. Nevertheless, the relationship between Henry and Katarina is hardly a blueprint for intimacy. Unintentionally revealing himself, as he often does, Thomas says of Henry, “It’s difficult to say which of the two, Henry or Ottawa, I know best.”– as if the two experiences could be reasonably equated.
It is not easy, initially, to like Thomas. His self-introduction, in which he describes a meticulous, hour by hour, daily schedule he has devised for himself, and which, despite its detail, suggests no human interaction — seems hopelessly ill-conceived. One is put on edge, on guard – is he neurotic? Definitely. Psychotic? Possibly. (What is it about excessive meticulousness that suggests concealed evil or violence?) Whatever it is, Thomas seems potentially dangerous. The reader is compelled to keep him at arms length, which, if you think about it, is exactly where he prefers to be.
Several things combine to slowly break down the distance established between Thomas and the reader – his gradual return to a more recognizably normal state of mind, a cumulative understanding of his past, the emergence of a gentle, if closed personality, and the surprising fact that he is often, intentionally or not, extremely funny.
Space prohibits a full appreciation of Thomas’s quiet, wry hilarity, but I can’t resist a few examples. Describing a childhood memory, he feels compelled to label the sunlight as “circa 1950.” Ottawa comes under fire as “a city whose surface disapproves of its own depths,”and in a moment of adolescent awkwardness, when he first assesses his own attractiveness through the eyes of a member of the opposite sex, he remembers feeling “as if Nature were a shop where I’d bought all the wrong things.”
In the end, one begins to love Thomas, in all his messy, reticent, obsessive complexity, because, in spite of everything, he has opted for hope. With what one comes to know is breathtaking personal courage, he has determined to reach out, attempting to break a cycle of coldness and distance,which began with the death of his grandfather and will end, he hopes, with Marya. The risk is monumental but the omens favourable, and if Marya takes the same journey as other readers, a happy ending remains a possibility. Good luck Thomas!