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Angel Walk

by Katherine Govier

The wide-angled scope of Angel Walk, spanning a half-dozen decades and the world from Parry Sound to Nagasaki, doubtless explains why this is Katherine Govier’s first novel in five years. It reprises a chaotic century in the life and times of Corinne Ditchburn, crusty individualist and wartime photographer. Ahead of her time, she’s been both “witness and tourist” in events too terrible to assimilate. The story picks up in 1937 in London, where an old family friend named Max Aitken – who has made it big in England as Lord Beaverbrook – becomes her mentor. She acquires an artist lover, an aging, Gully Jimsonesque “drinker, scoundrel, genius.” War threatens; she returns, pregnant, to Canada.

The book’s title comes from a track in a Northern Ontario munitions factory where nitroglycerine is hauled by hand from the trains – one false step, and all’s lost. It’s an apt metaphor for the precarious balance that is Cory Ditchburn’s gift (and tragedy), a disciplined disassociation between eye and soul. Govier builds her narrative on pictures from a retrospective, and on letters, sent and unsent – done before, but nevertheless done well here. The mud, horror, and crazy luck of war in Europe feel authentic; the clinking glasses and Beaverbrookery are arch and clever, and the Ontario bays and islands are drawn with love.

Familiar Govier themes of loss, separation, and death are all present, but there’s none of the ironic surrealism of The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery (1994); this is naturalistic fiction with the emphasis on character and significance. The prose is precise, image-laden, all angles and surfaces seeking an underlying pattern. Yet with a huge cast and countless settings, Govier’s ambitious narrative marches so briskly that details sometimes blur and dialogue becomes a buzz of words. Missing in action is the concentration of darkness that gave her earlier Between Men such power. Like Ditchburn, Govier grapples with love, evil, and death; Angel Walk confirms – we might have guessed – that meaning is intermittent, caught only in flashes, and human nature frustratingly opaque.