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Childhood

by André Alexis

Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, published in 1994, was André Alexis’s first book, a tight and elegant collection of short stories overlooked for lofty prizes. With his first novel, Childhood, honour will be redeemed. Childhood has been sold abroad and in the U.S., with astute American, U.K., and German firms bargaining to release Despair, too.

Sharp first novels are now the custom in Canadian publishing. Anne Michaels and ilk have blessed us with stylish products of their many years of intense labour. But Alexis does not rely on the pomp of a tour de force to trumpet his literary merit. Childhood is calm and quiet, and elegiac retrospect of that emotion in his past. Protagonist Thomas MacMillan writes this story “in the reading room, at a large wooden desk” to explain that emotion to himself, and to the woman he loves.

Certain puzzles in Alexis’s plot should not be solved by a review, and plot is something Thomas, too, wrestles. He is of Trinidadian descent, living in his beloved Ottawa, and though the novel traces his lineage through a black immigrant culture, ethnicity is both the most and least important aspect of his story. While similarly large ideas swell the novel – the nature and intimacies of reading, criminality, truth – Thomas records what is small. He lists, puts in order, footnotes; he divides time into increments in order to form and clarify the pain of a shadowy childhood. We are all, Alexis implies as helpless as children in the wake of our histories: “It has form, the past, but it is distance that makes it something other than wisp.” Thomas achieves that distance and is ready to build his first autobiography.

We do not enter only Thomas’s world; we also hear his renditions of other life stories – mother, grandmother, the enigmatic and kind Henry – and we are forced to add dark details to Thomas’s too-innocent recall. Alexis never slips in tone, does not resort to a single overwrought sentence or clumsy verb; poetry does not fill in for clarity. While far from transparent, Alexis’s style is simple and clean. Childhood re-enacts the sweet rhythms of thought that occur when a man’s present co-exists with a boy’s past.