Since retiring from McGill University, novelist and essayist George Szanto has spent many hours looking out from his writing studio upon the “length and breadth of the bog” that bisects his property on B.C.’s Gabriola Island. Trust a writer to become smitten with land described in a realtor’s listing as “an Engineer’s Challenge.”
The bog gives an “external, imposed structure” to this memoir, which is constructed around a year of bog watching. Time and the way it is organized are central to the narrative. Following a brief introduction, the book begins with “September,” a chapter that opens and closes with observations of the bog. In between, Szanto recalls his first post-retirement September on Gabriola Island and another September spent in Mexico in 1985.
The months that follow are treated in similar fashion. In “March,” the one-minute wait between applying two types of eye drops prompts a consideration of time – the waste and privilege of it. In “August,” Szanto reminisces about selling his home in Montreal, when time was “made visible by storage boxes labelled by years and places.”
Aside from a few curious transitions between paragraphs and events, the structure holds up well. The clear, conversational prose helps shape a likable narrator. The anti-Semitism Szanto experiences, his efforts opposing the war in Vietnam, his extensive travels, and his frustrations at work all come together nicely. Most touching are the passages that deal with Szanto’s parents. Their escape from a Vienna “riddled with Nazis,” and the shame the author felt as a child due to his mother’s strong accent, are explored with admirable delicacy.
Refreshing and satisfying, Bog Tender reveals a writer deep in reflection and quite happy with his lot.