Friday, August 2, 2013

Noman's Land by Gwendolyn MacEwen

This book is basically poetry. If you're into that sort of thing, you will probably like it very much. It is (as far as I can tell) the story of a fellow called Noman who has amnesia, and is picked up outside Kingsmere (home of William Lyon Mackenzie King's estate) and driven to Toronto, where he starts his life anew in a land he calls 'Kanada' - the loneliest country in the world.

It's quite a beautifully written book, with many layers of meaning. If I was the type who marked up library books, there are a lot of passages in this one I would underline. It is a strange, richly textured exploration of the Canadian identity, such as it is, and what becomes of people descended from fur traders and indigenous people who live(d) in harsh, frontier worlds. The vast spaces of Canada are present throughout, threatening to overwhelm the characters with their emptiness. This is really a Canadian book, though it is Toronto-centric as well in some ways.

I have a hard time with books like this - I'm kind of unadventurous when it comes to the melding of poetry with story, and nonlinear narratives. I love reading this kind of writing, but as poetry, not as a novel. It is beautifully written though, and in spite of myself it was a pleasure to read and to think about some of the more coherent thoughts present. It is one of the few novels I've read that really struggles, head on, with the Canadian identity and its relationship to the vast emptiness of this land.

Still, I almost didn't want to recommend it until I reached the very last chapter. If you are like me and like your stories a bit more straightforward, I recommend you pick this book up and just read the final chapter, which is the story of Noman swimming across Lake Ontario. It's really beautiful, but also linear and realistic (one might even say graphic) - like, I wondered if MacEwen had, herself, swum the lake. It's perfect.

So...I didn't like the book overall but I did like that chapter.

Three CN Towers out of five.

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