Days By Moonlight
Coach House Books, 2019
Softcover, 218 pages
With four novels published within the last five years, multi-award winning Canadian author André Alexis shows no signs of slowing down in this, his latter middle age. On the contrary, with increasing international recognition and increasingly reverential treatment by critics and reviewers, he seems to be rapidly ascending to the realm of the esteemed elders of Canadian literature. With the publication of Days by Moonlight earlier this spring, he remains on track to complete his ambitious quincunx series, begun with his 2014 novel, Pastoral.
On the surface, Days By Moonlight is an entertainingly whimsical ramble through familiar Alexis territory, complete with ruminations upon love, loss and connection, minute observations of the natural (and possibly supernatural) world, great reams of landscape, zany small town Ontario shenanigans, and, of course, questions large and small, all narrated by the lovably self-effacing Alphie Homer.
and it was all true in a way only the way kept changing
W. S. Merwin.
We meet Alphie August Homer, a 33-year-old lab technician living in Toronto, as he is about to embark on a late summer road trip through southern Ontario at the request of Professor Morgan Bruno — an old family friend. Professor Bruno, a contemporary of Alphie’s parents, seeks Alphie’s help to complete his research on the renowned but elusive poet, John Skennen (aka John Stephens) about whom he is writing a book. Alphie, who trained as a botanist, rationalizes his enthusiasm for the trip by noting that it will give him an opportunity to indulge his passion for sketching the native flora of Ontario. But the reader comes to understand that Alphie may have other reasons to welcome this diversion, coming as it does on the one year anniversary of his parents’ death — both killed in an horrific car accident on the 401. We learn, as well, that in addition to the sudden loss of his parents, a long term and significant relationship with his girlfriend, Anne, has come to an end in the intervening months. Alphie is not given to emoting, but he does admit that he has found his home city “oppressive,” lately, because he “knew it too well”. In this light, one can intuit a psychic crisis of sorts — grief and loss, continually triggered by landmarked memories. This also provides another perspective from which to view Professor Bruno’s proposal — a wish to keep an eye on an old friend’s child, masquerading as a request for help.
The road trip begins in sunlight, as the two head off to Whitchurch-Stouffville where Professor Bruno hopes to interview the aunt of the poet John Skennen, who proves, in the end, to be a bit of a handful. She is particularly provoked by the suggestion that the last place John Skennen had been seen was the town of Feversham. “No one’s supposed to know about that,” she snaps, thus, right from the outset, imbuing Feversham with a certain mystique. The meeting ends when Mrs. Stephens attacks Professor Bruno with a bright orange umbrella. This proves to be the first of several umbrella occurrences — a detail of note for anyone alert to Freudian overtones, funny, but also, perhaps, a pointed prompt to take the psychology of the expedition seriously. A serendipitous encounter during the resulting visit to the local hospital leads to an interview with one of Skennen’s high school girlfriends. Mention is made of the curious fact that Professor Bruno bears a striking resemblance to the young John Skennen. Their adventures in Whitchurch-Stouffville provide Professor Bruno the opportunity to enlighten Alphie about the interrelated concepts of spirit and beauty, and, triggered by their glimpse into Skennen’s early romantic life, Alphie begins what turns out to be an extended rumination about the nature of love.
Next on the itinerary is Concord, where Ron Brady, a childhood friend of Skennen’s resides. He is of the firm opinion that Skennen is dead, based, reasonably enough, on an eerie encounter he had with his ghost, which sat, staring, on his couch, before pointing at its watch, and evaporating into thin air. In the course of the conversation, Alphie learns about fate and destiny and wonders if one can develop into an artist, or if it is inborn. In what seems to be a developing pattern, the visit ends rather violently, as Alphie has his first of several encounters with dogs — in this case, an attack by Brady’s three white Argentinian mastiffs. By the time he notes that, “their movements were so coordinated, it was as if the three dogs were one,” one senses something fishy about the encounter, the information being strangely specific unless one intends, deliberately, to reference Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of the underworld. Another trip to the hospital results, during which Alphie, descending into shock, has a transcendent experience, influenced, no doubt, by Professor Bruno’s exposition on the differences between the Roman (Natura) and Greek (Phusis) view of nature. Alphie’s experience, it seems, was of a distinctly Greek flavour — a sense of perfect unity with the natural world, providing another clue as to how to view subsequent proceedings. Alphie has a distinctly “otherworldly” sense that he had been guided to the hospital, and when the duty nurse makes him a gift of a pomegranate, a mythologically redolent fruit, and explicit reference is made to Cerberus, Orpheus, and travels in the underworld, suspicions that the trappings of reality may be falling away are confirmed. And, in its own way, it all makes sense — if John Skennen were indeed dead, his pursuit would, necessarily, involve a trip to the underworld.
In the second chapter, the title “The Cities of the Plain,” makes overt reference to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and one thinks, instantly, of societies which have lost their way. In this story, Nobleton and Coulson’s Hill serve as modern stand-ins. As befits the allusion, Alphie’s education takes a darker turn, a shift toward the shadows. The sometimes queasy relationship between writers, publishers, and readers, and, also, the power of love, is examined in a story about a much-honoured, but nevertheless starving writer who invented an abused childhood to satisfy popular demand, and the father who, out of love for his daughter, allowed the story to stand. Further eerie tales of Skennen’s postmortem activities, including conflicting iterations of Mr. Brady’s encounter with his ghost, challenge the notion of objective truth and highlight our essential isolation, the limits of intimacy, and the ultimate impossibility of knowing another mind. As Ms. Flynn, the aforementioned author notes, “No one knows anything about anyone else.”
The narrative now takes a sharp turn to Swiftian satire as Alphie chronicles their remaining stay in Nobleton and subsequent visit to Coulson’s Hill, towns which, if their summer festivities are any indication, have, indeed, lost their way. Alexis indulges in a blast of social critique that manages to be both fantastically silly, and pointedly caustic. The origins and current version of a weirdly warped “House Burning” spectacle, which has become the central attraction of Nobleton’s Pioneer Days celebrations, are chronicled by an initially bemused and finally horrified Alphie. Although originally meant to pay homage to the self-sufficient resiliency of the area’s pioneers, undercurrents of resentment and class division distort the event into a cruel, if wildly improbable, parody of charity. In nearby Coulson’s Hill, in spite of a surfeit of good intentions, an attempt to honour the town’s history dies a slow death by committee, inevitably evolving into an inane mockery of itself as organizers, intent on inclusivity, make the mistake of trying to hear and satisfy everyone. Alexis is treading on dangerous ground here, modern outrage being what it is (absolute and trigger happy) but wisely distances himself using the trope of the innocent abroad. Alphie and the Professor merely observe and wonder. The episodes are too silly to be taken seriously, and yet, social currents flowing through our modern world are easily recognized.
Dubious festivities aside, the southern Ontario landscape continues to evoke philosophical questions as Professor Bruno recounts the fable-like tale of George Coulson, the eponymous early settler of the area who dreamed of gold. Depending on whom one consults, his story is one of futile obsession, or stubborn belief in the power of possibility. Dreams, Alphie learns, can be tricky things, especially considered in light of Professor Buno’s comment that, “The fact you believe in a dream doesn’t make it real.” In a subtle semantic shift typical of the writing, Alphie notes that his most memorable, significant dreams, “almost always begin with me going on a long trip,” providing yet another window through which to view his present journey. Coulson’s Hill was on the itinerary because Mr. Henderson, a friend of Skennen’s, lived there. He presents the surprising news that Skennen, far from being dead, was seen frequently in the town. Alphie’s attack of heartsickness, brought on by memories of Anne, results in the empathetic Mr. Henderson sharing the tale of John Skennen’s one great love, a fairy tale of sorts, complete with riddles and witches — a complex yarn which reveals both the fragility and the power of love. The story lends some further credence to the idea that Skennen may, in fact, be alive and well. This information must be weighed against the presumptive setting, however, and prompts the question: in the underworld, do the dead recognize that they are dead? The story causes Alphie to ruminate further on the nature of love, wondering, “What remains of our feelings for those we’ve loved when they’ve left us?” As the intrepid travellers take their leave, Mr. Henderson opines that they might indeed find Skennen himself in Feversham.
Far from exciting Professor Bruno, the prospect of meeting his literary hero, in person, seems to dampen his enthusiasm, causing a tactical delay in the form of a side trip to Schomberg. This gives Alexis an opportunity to examine, in his quirky way, the delicate question of culture as nurture or nature, and the endless pitfalls awaiting any attempt at cross-cultural communications, no matter how well-intentioned. A chance encounter with a hitchhiker results in a further diversion — an unplanned trip to the Museum of Canadian Sexuality, which, amongst other delights, includes some wildly improbably alternative Canadian history. Attempting to work out the differences between sex and love, Alphie concludes that love, unlike sex, cannot be catalogued, measured or classified, and does not reside in the material. But, he wonders, can it (his parents’ or Anne’s love, for example) be lost, “or did it, rather, stay within [him]: a perpetual gift, an inexhaustible resource?” As a result of these musings, it occurs to Alphie, for the first time, that “our journey … was not to help Professor Bruno but to help me … as if I’d generated everything in order to tell myself this small thing,” and he muses over the possibility that “the professor was there to help me, not the other way around.”
Professor Bruno announces that, instead of now heading to Feversham, as planned, they will pursue a further diversion within a diversion, a stop over at Marsville. In the process, Bruno confirms Alphie’s suspicions that he is wary of Feversham, and the possibility of meeting his literary hero in person. Bedeviled by his attempt to avoid the inevitable however, Professor Bruno soon finds himself face-to-face with John Skennen, aka John Stephens, their resemblance once again noted, but who only reluctantly reveals his identity to the visitors. “I was John Skennen,” he admits, his choice of tense significant, and then looks at his watch. Alexis does not elaborate as to whether or not John Skennen subsequently evaporated, but, in any case, he makes a material appearance at breakfast the next day, and picks up his own narrative at the point left off by Mr. Henderson. We learn, sadly, that after winning the love of his life, he lost her, and what follows is an elaborate tale of drunken despair, a dark night of the soul spent wandering the back roads of southern Ontario, during which Skennen meets a demon, (perhaps his own?) finds unlikely salvation in the form of a taciturn Scottish-Jamaican Methodist from Manitoba, and is led to the sacred centre of the world, a sort of Canadian Delphi: Feversham. Who knew? (One is, however, tempted to explore the connotative implications of the name.) A thread begun earlier gathers momentum when Skennen’s story includes a conversation between the poet and the Methodist about the relationship between the divine, reality and dreams, and the question of which is least untrue: illusion or reality. Guided by Reverend Crosbie (a sort of spiritual facilitator) self-professed atheist Skennen is led to the “sacred clearing,” where, as a result of a hallucinatory, and enigmatically colour-coded mystical interlude, he finds himself challenged with the central question of his existence: the choice between creativity (his poetry) or love. Backed up against the red wall, so to speak, Skennen finds that the choice is, if not easy, surprisingly clear. As a result of this clarification, he completes the majority of a respected body of poetry, whereupon his creative well-spring dries up, and he fades into a quiet life of obscurity as John Stephens — in effect, “dying.”
The fact that Professor Bruno has, at this point, met and discussed essential questions with the object of his research might logically signal the end of the expedition, and thus the story. However, Alphie and Professor Bruno continue on to Feversham, a clear indication that the emotional core of the novel is still ahead. One can view the long, and at times convoluted Skennen story as a parallel plot of sorts. As Skennen’s tale makes clear, Feversham is a place to which one goes to plumb one’s depths, to confront the self, and where the most fundamental questions of existence might be addressed. This allows the reader to anticipate, and to a certain extent, make sense of Alphie’s subsequent adventures there. From its first mention by the irate Mrs. Stephens, Feversham has been the enigmatic, gravitational centre of the story — all things have moved, however haphazardly, towards it.
Feversham, it seems, ‘was’ [and is] ‘inescapable.’
Even for an imagination primed by knowledge of Skennen’s experiences, Alphie’s adventures in Feversham, and their consequences, are bizarre. Readers are swept into an increasingly hallucinatory narrative, dreamlike, psychedelic, and untethered from time, vaguely reminiscent of cautionary fairy tales warning of the dangers of wilderness, complete with a mystical guide/dangerously sexy werewolf, and otherworldly food. Emerging after three days in the sacred grove, he recounts an ecstatic oneness with the universe — his attempts to articulate his experience resembling accounts of dissolution of the self induced by psychoactive drugs. However, the precise nature of his metamorphosis remains undefined. Professor Bruno and Reverend Crosbie tussle over the meaning of Alphie’s epiphany as the professor insists on an entirely psychological interpretation, while the Reverend equally firmly argues in favour of divine intervention. Alphie remains unconvinced by either argument, but offers his own ideas. Like Skennen, Alphie believes he was forced to acknowledge the limits of his devotion to love, to examine his true self, and thus to acknowledge his own complicity in his break up with Anne. Alphie’s sojourn in Feversham also presents him with another big question: is the divine best sought in wilderness or civilization? — a topic which has occupied Alexis elsewhere. He comes to no definitive personal conclusion, except, perhaps, in his dreams, falling asleep to a long ago childhood memory, running through a field of wheat bowing in the breeze (divine breath?) while his father, a minister, preaches elsewhere.
As Alphie and the professor turn homeward, Alphie discovers that his time in Feversham has been, indeed, life-changing — an incident in Tim Horton’s revealing that he has somehow acquired magical healing powers, which he demonstrates in a series of minor miracles. Further conversation with John Stephens at his home in Barrow (the setting of Alexis’s previous novel, Pastoral) and an astounding incident in which he revives a dead mouse, reveal that Alphie has been initiated into a select group of miracle workers — those who can make things multiply (think of magic cauldrons, or loaves and fishes) those who can start fires, and those, like Alphie, who can heal. Skennen warns Alphie about the dangers of his new gift, advising him to use it with discretion, reminding him that “as the story goes, people crucified the world’s most famous healer.” Alphie makes a distinction between good versus good intentions (a very current issue) and wonders how he can best use his new powers for the former.
Common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
We leave Alphie and the professor as they head back to Toronto, very early in the morning, Alexis making a point of contrasting the end of their adventure with its start. What began in sunshine (implying night is still ahead) ends with the travelers heading east, out of darkness, towards “the first light of day show[ing] the contours of the land” (reminiscent of Nabokov’s “brief crack of light”) in a quiet world, “chastely dreaming of light.” Musing on the consequences of the trip, Alphie notes that the professor had had his doubts resolved, while he, Alphie, “was returning a changed man,” newly awakened to a miraculous universe. Making explicit anagramic reference to the author (Bladvak Vinomori) Alphie goes on to express several very Nabokovian ideas: the relationship of one’s consciousness and imagination to the world, with Alphie noting that he is returning home to a new world, changed utterly by his new understanding of his abilities and subsequent obligations.
As a reader, one has growing concerns about Alphie’s new state of mind — wondering how seriously his story should be taken, or if he is in the early stages of a raging messianic complex, and how it might all end. Alphie himself offers reassurances — a short, comic anecdote about his attempts to experiment with Professor Bruno’s arthritis illustrating that, questions about the exact nature of his tale aside, his ego remains humble and cautious. The story ends in a peaceful scene, beautiful in its concise simplicity: Alphie’s parents and their love for him is brought to life in his memory as he gazes out over Lake Ontario, the water quietly undulating in the evening light, a boat gliding home to safe harbour.
Alexis’s stories are maddeningly difficult to summarize, as the above tortured effort surely indicates. If one concentrates on the surface of the story, it’s all quite nonsensical. One could leave it at that I suppose — throwing the task of making sense of it to individual readers, or one’s own subconscious, but then, why bother with a review? Any attempt at exegesis, however, requires reference to a myriad of small details, whose critical associations are significant in regards to a larger pattern, although often fragmentarily, partially, ephemerally or varyingly so. Including these details requires some sor
t of context, which forces one to, almost, retell the entire story. Leaving them out means lengthy explanation will be required to introduce them into any sort of subsequent interpretation. A conundrum, no doubt, and as usual, I have chosen the long way out.
To go beyond the superficially entertaining in this novel, it helps to bear in mind a number of Alexian proclivities — a preoccupation with landscape, both physical and emotional, a tendency to circle, continuously, around concerns about love, loss, identity, and connection, and a fascination with underlying (invisible) structure or order. One must also be aware of Alexis’s willingness to follow an idea wherever its various associations might lead, aided by a serene disregard for the boundaries normally imposed between reality and fantasy, the literal and the figurative, between waking and dreaming. Early on, Alexis goes to some pains to remind us that:
being awake is no proof that what you see is real any more than being asleep is proof that it’s not. The realms — sleeping and waking — are different, but you have to be attentive to both.
Further, it is best to heed the author’s own instructions in matters of interpretation. Readers are given ample indication that close attention to small details will be rewarded. Professor Bruno explains, also early in the story, that “You never know (…) where you’ll find a detail, the detail, that’ll illuminate a work.” Alphie himself admits that he “[cherishes] little details,” and that his father, a Doctor of Divinity, taught him that paying close attention is a form of worship. Alexis also cautions that, “any reasonably long story is a wilderness of signs.” It is certainly true of this story, and, to paraphrase the epigraph, its content all strives to be true in a way, only the way keeps changing.
The title, is, of course, an important detail. Days by Moonlight, announces without prevarication, an oxymoronic premise. To engage further one must accept its inherently figurative logic. Days lived by moonlight may be expected to be intuitive, soulful, inwardly reflective, preoccupied with the boundaries between the conscious and subconscious, between waking and dreaming. And, indeed, this is what we find. As mentioned earlier, although the journey begins very much in the logical light of day, small details suggesting that it will be as much a psychic journey as a physical one, accumulate. We first meet Alphie struggling with grief. Fusing the psychic and the physical, he tells us that, “the bewildering thing about grief, for me, is how difficult it makes the world to navigate. Home itself becomes foreign territory, though everything around you is familiar.” Grief has, clearly, disrupted the coordinates of his life and been a radically defamiliarizing experience. (Other writers have, of course, explored the destabilizing effect of intense grief, perhaps most notably Joan Didion, in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking.) In retrospect, Alphie’s observation that “[no] place reveals itself to you all at once. It comes at you in waves of associative detail,” could be as rightly (perhaps even more rightly) applied to an emotional landscape as a physical one. And, we must remember, very early in the journey, the professor is attacked, nay, hit over the head, with an orange umbrella. Days By Moonlight certainly gives fair warning, right from the outset, that the journey may be as much a matter of psychology, as of geography.
A strange idea: that the professor was there to help me, not the other way around.
In this moonish light, Professor Bruno begins to look very Jungian indeed — a wise, older, authority figure who will act as a guide for the seeker. And, if we look at the journey in one way, we can see that this makes sense. Alphie, continuously professing ignorance, is led by Bruno through a series of “life stations,” — where he is introduced to various big ideas: the nature of beauty, fate and destiny, questions of belonging and identity, the limits of intimacy and possibility of connection, the infinite complications of sexuality, the nature of love. Very early in the journey, Alphie (in shock as a result of his encounter with Mr. Brady’s dogs) experiences a fusion of physical and psychic landscapes, and the story slips through a curtain dividing reality and dreams, into the underworld of the subconscious. As they approach the spiritual epicentre of Feversham, the existential stakes increase as Alphie’s experiences lead him to consider some very big questions indeed: the nature of reality, the distinctions made between wilderness and civilization, and which might be a true source of the divine. Throughout the journey, Alphie muses about love, re-examining his ideas in light of his new perspectives. By his own interpretation, his psychedelic experiences in Feversham forced him to acknowledge his break with Anne for what it was: a schism to which some of his least admirable qualities contributed. Newly acquainted with his true self, and consistent with possibilities theoretically unleashed by a Jungian integration of the shadow, he discovers he has new and marvelous powers.
But, what to make of his self-described healing powers, and, most alarmingly, his account of his ability, at least amongst the rodentia, to raise the dead? A conservative interpretation, I suppose, might suggest that Alphie ventured too far into the wilderness and lost his mind, or that he is simply a supremely unreliable narrator. However, the Jungian interpretation is also workable if we don’t take the stories of miraculous healing, and a revitalized mouse too literally. Or, we could notice that at one point, Alphie wonders if he had “generated everything [the whole expedition] in order to tell myself this small thing” — that is, that his parents’ love (and Anne’s) remains an inexhaustible resource. Having traversed his new emotional landscape (profound grief and loss) he now understands that love is never truly lost. It lives within him, and he can bring it to life at will through memory. This gives him great comfort. Alphie has processed his grief and loss, and has indeed healed himself. He has come a long way. Alternately, we could view the firestarters (initiators, activists, revolutionaries, those who “get things going”) the multipliers (those whose efforts alleviate need and yield prosperity) and healers (those who address and mitigate pain, including artists) as positive sociopolitical roles available to each of us. Alphie, with his powers of detailed observation, fair-minded neutrality, and newly robust psyche, might well make an excellent healer, although the temptation to see Alexis the artist, the storyteller, peeking through here is almost irresistible. Each interpretation makes sense in its own way, and perhaps even more so in aggregate.
This multivalent approach can also be applied to an interpretation of Professor Bruno. He works very well as a Jungian archetype — the wise guide or mentor, and certainly, Alexis gives us indications he should be regarded this way. Through much of the journey he acts as a font of knowledge — introducing Alphie, the dreamer, the seeker, to important philosophical ideas, and it is his agenda that determines their route. However, the professor can also and simultaneously be seen as an avatar for the enlightenment, carrying the banner for science and logic, whose presence helps Alphie anchor his thinking, and who acts as a voice for the skeptical reader as well. He meets his match in Reverend Crosbie, who provides a religious counterbalance, and the two squabble, allegorically, over the correct interpretation of Alphie’s experiences in the sacred grove. Both prove inadequate, however, when faced with life’s ultimate mysteries, and the professor’s continued attempts to squeeze Alphie’s miraculous experiences into an acceptably scientific framework feel increasingly blinkered and inadequate. Post Feversham, Alphie must be his own navigator. There is, however, one more valence through which to approach the professor. In a certain light, he can be seen as being on a psychic journey of discovery too, John Skennen an alternative self, embodying Morgan Bruno, the poet who might have been. Specific note is made of his resemblance to the young John Skennen, and that he grew up in the same area. Early in their adventure, Professor Bruno confides to Alphie that he is at the right age to reconsider his youth and Alphie wonders, “had he [Bruno] written this book to better understand Skennen’s work, or to revisit his own past?” Alphie concludes that his companion’s motives are unclear. It is reasonable to imagine that in his youth, Professor Bruno had a choice: to be a poet or to study poets, and as a literary academic, chose the safer devotional path (relatively speaking). This choice left his artistic potential untested, and he is free to believe he might have been brilliant, should he have chosen to be. A reckoning is, therefore, a dangerous proposition. As the professor himself explains, “in my mind and in all the work I’ve done, John Skennen is an artist and a brilliant thinker. I’d hate to have that image of him destroyed by facts.” He goes on to say that, “I think my version of the man and his work is better than any real version could be … we old people know the cost of that confrontation more than you youngsters!” In this light, the abrupt decline of his enthusiasm, once it became clear he might actually meet his hero, is understandable, and one is reminded of the professor’s admonition to Alphie that dreams are not real just because one believes in them. In fact, one can view the entire George Coulson interlude as an examination of Professor Bruno’s dilemma. However, the professor’s inability to make the imaginative leap required to fully appreciate Alphie’s experience in Feversham, and his stubborn insistence that it be framed within what are obviously inadequate rational explanations, may provide a clue that, in fact, his career choices were correct. Alphie does note, when summing up their quest, that the professor’s doubts had been resolved.
Bearing in mind Alphie’s realization that “beauty is both order and story,” and sensitized to Alexis’s penchant for embedding secret structures within his works (as a result of our correspondence about an earlier review of Pastoral — see “Responses” at end of review) my patterns sensors were persistently a-twitch while reading this novel. Knowing that the earlier novel was influenced by the musical structure of it’s symphonic namesake, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, I was immediately tempted to consider possible parallels between Days by Moonlight and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The fact that “the Moonlight,” is, famously, purported to have been inspired by unattainable love, that grief over lost/absent love is a preoccupation of the novel, and that it has three distinct movements, similar to the three sections of the novel, encourages this line of investigation. Beyond these preliminary observations, however, attempts to link specific elements of structure become increasingly tortured. To advance further, this theory would require elucidation from the author himself.
Readers who remain devoted to small details, however, will also notice that reference to colour is pervasive and specific. Throughout the story, mentions of green, blue, white, yellow, black, orange and red (or minor variations such as pink, grey, silver, bronze, gold) are repeatedly found together in clusters. For example, the adventurers arrive at Skennen’s aunt’s green house, with black roof tiles, the daughter has blue hair, the aunt, grey, the sofa is yellow, with white foam protruding, the aunt wears a pink bathrobe and white slippers, her umbrella, bright orange. Putting aside the problem of knowing when, for example, a plant implies greenness, or, is just a plant, the tendency is inescapable.
- Alexis’s affection for arcana,
- that this novel is part of his quincunx series
- that throughout, there are references to the number five
- that at least one tradition in the ancient art of feng shui (concerned with harmonious relationships to nature) involves five elements
- that each of these five elements has a corresponding colour(s)
- wood: green
- fire: red/orange
- earth: brown/yellow/pink,
- metal: white/grey/metallics
- water: blue/black
and that these colours are specifically found in the colour clusters in the novel, it seems reasonably certain that feng shui concepts contribute to the story’s underlying structures.
Attempting to tease out all of the potential associative clues, to catalogue the seemingly endless layers of connected meaning contributing to the story’s whole, to navigate this “wilderness of signs,” is to risk a descent into a infinite rabbit hole — I warn you from the abyss! Alphie’s name alone… But enough! Suffice to say that, perhaps, the best approach to the novel is one that Professor Bruno endorses, to “use your instincts and find your own way.” In other words, open your mind, allow layers of association, like pigments in a watercolour wash, to do their alchemical work, enjoy the ride, note, feel and admire the meticulous detail, appreciate Alexis’s reach and depth, and, at the end of it all, ask yourself, “Ha ye, in any way, bin healed?”