In reviewing the latest and one of the greatest novels in Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Richard Ford’s literary career Canada, one is reminded of the simple turn of the tap, the water slowly seeping out before a sudden rush of brilliance, albeit the brilliance is also there in the wonderful beginning, only in more hushed tones.
It’s been six years since Ford has released a novel and while it’s been a tense wait for many devotees rest assured it hasn’t been in vain. Canada is an stunning study of family, loss, and human nature at its purest. One of the greatest American authors of the era, Ford’s skill lies in his incredible descriptions of the North American landscape as well as his mesmerising asides on the human condition when thrust into atypical circumstances.
The year is 1960, and the Parsons family – father Bev, mother Neeva, and 15-year-old Dell and his twin sister, Berner – are settled, just about, in the city of Great Falls, Montana, having moved there four years previously. Bev, a good ol’ boy from Alabama, had been an air force bombardier who saw action in the Philippines and Osaka, “where they rained down destruction on the earth”. Having left the service, he works as a car salesman and then gets involved in a beef-smuggling racket with a local band of Indians. Neeva, short for Geneva, “a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, vestiges of which ran down her jawline”, is Jewish, and has literary pretensions, or longings, at least. She and Bev are an archetypical American married couple of the time, who just happen to become bank robbers.
In Canada Dell, the narrator tells the story from the dual perspective of both 15-year-old boy and reflective adult, deftly beginning the book with the curtain still closed, the skill of a truly great writer. With this brave beginning, Ford begins to entice your knuckles to tighten as the story unfolds, the tension building as the curtain slowly cascades stage left.
As justice is seemingly being served Dell is parted from Berner as she walks off in hope of the American Dream, even at such a tender age. Dell is driven by a friend of his mother’s across the border to Canada, where he will be left in the care, in the loosest form of the word, of her brother Arthur who owns a run-down hotel outside Saskatchewan. Here Dell meets Arthur’s dangerously untamed henchman Charley Quarters, a character on whom an entire book could be devoted. Through the book, Ford brings us back to the same chorus, questioning the American Dream although remaining neutral on the merits of the pursuit of it.
“Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself.”
But what, by now, would constitute normal life?
The final encounter at the close of the book between Dell and Berner is one of the most tenderly drawn scenes in modern literature, and could only have been written by a writer of Richard Ford’s empathy, insight and technical mastery.
Canada is another masterpiece by a true master. It’s far too early to call it a true classic, but the parallels Ford draws between today’s economic and social climate and the individual’s quest for financial sovereignty of the 1960’s is incredibly crafted. As always, his characters are richly constructed and his writing strikes chords you never knew you had, drifting between heart-achingly venerable to brutally direct in a single thought. Ford never loses control throughout his prose, as rich at times as it is demur at others. Soon to be talked about amongst literary scholars for years to come, why not talk about it today.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Andrew Cattanach
by Richard Ford
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford’s masterpiece.
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.
In 1956, Del Parsons’ family came to a stop in Great Falls, Montana, the way many military families did following the war. His father, Bev, was a talkative, plank-shouldered man, an airman from Alabama with an optimistic and easy-scheming nature. Del and his twin sister, Berner, could easily see why their mother might have been attracted to him. But their mother Neeva – from an educated, immigrant, Jewish family – was shy, artistic and alienated from their father’s small-town world of money scrapes and living on-the-fly. It was more bad instincts and bad luck that Del’s parents decided to rob the bank. They weren’t reckless people.
In the days following the arrest, Del and Berner lock themselves inside the house and wait for the friend their mother said would come. When no-one does, Berner runs away. Del, a solitary child obsessed with bee-keeping and chess, does not have friends to call on.
Del is saved before the authorities think to arrive. Driving across the Montana border into Saskatchewan his life hurtles towards the unknown, towards a hotel in a deserted town, towards the violent and enigmatic American Arthur Remlinger, and towards Canada itself – a landscape of rescue and abandonment. But as Del discovers, in this new world of secrets and upheaval, he is not the only one whose own past lies on the other side of a border.
In Canada, Richard Ford has created a masterpiece. A haunting and visionary novel of vast landscapes, complex identities and fragile humanity. It questions the fine line between the normal and the extraordinary, and the moments in our lives that take us into new worlds.
Author: Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. He has published six novels and four collections of stories, including The Sportswriter, Independence Day, A Multitude of Sins and, most recently,The Lay of the Land. Independence Day was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first time the same book had won both prizes. He lives in Maine with his wife, Kristina Ford.
Novelist and regular Booktopia Blog contributor, Kylie Ladd, recently reviewed Canada on the Wheeler Centre website:
Read it here: Tipping Points and Transgressions: Richard Ford’s Canada