Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Love letter to Twee-town

I'm now working my gradual way through the books that I bought C for her birthday (I'm sure that there's something ethically dubious about buying presents that you then get to use). First up, A Boy Of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews (which, according to the WP, is pronounced "Tayvz"; how does the written form of a name come to depart from its pronunciation so badly?)

Hosea Funk (comedy name #1) is the mayor of Algren in Canada, not just a small town, but statistically almost as small a town as towns can get. After Canada's prime minister rashly promises to visit Canada's smallest town, Hosea's mission is to keep Algren's population at exactly 1500, and his duties expand to include regular checks on the pregnant and the dying, and the redrawing of the town's boundaries to include or exclude necessary or superfluous citizens. The root of this obsession to win this visit lies with a story that Hosea's mother once told him, that the prime minister is actually his father. Meanwhile, Knute (comedy name #2), a former resident of Algren has had enough of Winnipeg and is returning to live with her mother and her ailing father. In further consternation to Hosea, she's bringing her young daughter, Summer Feelin' (comedy name #3), and there are rumours that the estranged father, Max, is also winding his way back to Algren from Europe. However, Hosea's demographic troubles also lie closer to home - his girlfriend Lorna wants to leave the city and move in with him. Can Hosea keep his citizens in check? And can Knute and Max bury the hatchet?

As the description above implies, this novel has something of a spiritual connection with the small town Americana epitomised by the likes of Northern Exposure and (the comedy elements of) Twin Peaks. All of the characters are fairly likeable, and all are pretty quirky in various ways. Among others, there's Max's mother, an alcoholic famed for periodically driving her combine harvester up and down the town, and the town's fire chief, a widower with an existential crisis that requires he sleep with more women.

The plot is similarly quite quirky, and never really deviates much from where you expect it to go when it starts off. That's not necessarily a problem at all, and it would describe any number of novels, but the rest of the novel is pretty slight. There is a small amount of character development along the way, but it's difficult to discern if there are any deeper themes here. There's almost an interesting relationship between Hosea and his dying friend Tom, but it's handled with almost too light a touch, such that one neither quite gets the point of it nor engages particularly with either character, despite the somewhat tragic situation. Equally, while the novel is quite whimsical, it never fully adopts this as its mode either, so it sits uncomfortably for me.

So, although it was quite fun to read, it's very much at the lighter end of literature, but it doesn't really make its lightness a virtue, or convince you that's what it's trying to do. Possibly it just didn't quite work out the way that the author intended - it's only her second novel after all. And her later novel, A Complicated Kindness, seems to have been much more successful (C really liked it when she read it).

In passing, a rant. While Knute is, I think, supposed to be a likable character, she frequently just wound up annoying me, what with her laziness when she was supposed to be working for Hosea, and with the rather hippy-ish choice of name for her daughter. If that was supposed to be endearingly quirky, it misfired badly with me - all I could think about whenever Summer Feelin' turned up was the drubbing she'd be getting when she went to school. If you like a dumb name, get a deed poll and inflict it on yourself, not on your children.

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