With its brief chapters and empathetic narrative, Cary Fagan’s slim new novel stands out from other coming-of-age stories.
Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Kleeman is the son of struggling immigrant parents in 1930s Toronto. His Jewish father is a failed inventor of mechanical toys, his mother an Italian purveyor of spices and grains. Like many teens, Benjamin longs to be anywhere but home. Sneaking out one night, he meets Corrine, a 16-year-old black girl who rescues him from a beating. Unconventionally for the time, the pair become close friends and lovers. Simultaneously, Benjamin finds himself fascinated by magic tricks, and yearns to have his own act. Over time, and with the aid of Corrine and others, he develops a repertoire and lands a show in a theatre, where his rise to success, and ultimately freedom, is marked by an illusion involving a lion.
Employing spare prose, Fagan casts Benjamin’s first-person narration in the engaging tone of a born storyteller. The book itself is a sort of magic trick: we believe everything Benjamin says, including things he cannot know (being neither supernatural nor clairvoyant) because he conjures it all with such authority. He gives us the bird’s eye view, which is both a nod to the title and a foreshadowing of the book’s ending.
“The thing about magic,” Benjamin says, “is that it must be taken very, very seriously.… [W]hat a conjurer needs is for himself to believe. To believe that what he does has deeper meaning.” For Benjamin, this need extends beyond magic into the realm of his daily life and family history. The reader accepts the story, and its protagonist, right up to his last disappearing act.
With the punchy impact of a short story, A Bird’s Eye boasts a strong setting, imaginative characterization, and a captivating narrative voice. In the closing pages, Fagan nicely brings his story full circle with a moving, satisfying ending.