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Clara Callan

by Richard B. Wright

Is there reason to worry about the Fresh-Face/First-Fiction flash? Here are the four elements currently valued by Canadian book publishing: smart marketing, good writing, flash haircuts, toned skin. Nothing to fear there, unless you are a writer with only one or two elements. A pin-up promo shot will not bag you a major prize, but neither will good writing alone.

The risk these days is that gloss and glitter do not stick to a good writer – especially those in mid- or late career – and so their books don’t get the attention they merit. The list could be vast, but think of superb recent novels by Matt Cohen, Jack Hodgins, and even relative newcomer Gayla Reid.

Richard B. Wright is the author of eight acclaimed novels, including the Faber and Toronto Book Award-winning, In the Middle of a Life and the Giller- and GG-nominated The Age of Longing. When that novel won its share of praise, readers everywhere (except maybe in Wright’s home base St. Catharines) were asking, “Isn’t he old and African-American?” or “What else has he done?” If the game is fair, his new novel, Clara Callan, will put an end to those questions and send a new and wide audience scrambling to libraries to check out his backlist.

Clara Callan is that most democratic kind of book: a deft and lovely mix of highbrow literature and lowbrow melodrama. This is not a strategy meant to capture the largest possible market; it’s what the book’s about. Clara and Nora Callan were born in the village of Whitfield, Ontario, in the early 1900s. Their mother died before either were 10, a possible suicide. The girls (Clara is the older) were raised by their father, the local school principal.

The novel begins in 1934, just after the father’s death, and ends five years later. Pretty, perky Nora has moved to New York for a role in the first radio soap opera; less pretty Clara, now a schoolteacher in her thirties and still sombre and single, is assessing a life she is just beginning without father. The novel swivels between letters and diary entries and so the narrative voice is sometimes Clara’s – poetic, melancholy, formal – and sometimes Nora’s – bouncy, brash, and all show biz. Other correspondences texture and deepen the novel, such as letters between Clara and Nora’s lesbian writer friend, Evelyn, who is caustic and cynical. Evelyn brings out the supposedly schoolmarmish Clara’s dark and dry wit.

Part of the wonder of Wright’s technique is how the structural apparatus of the book – all those letters and other fragments – does not prevent it from being a classic page-turner. The pace is soap-opera fast, but the content is often profound and the characters so fully formed they haunt and chatter even when – if – the book can be put down. For those seeking wisdom, the themes and tangents are many: Depression-era economics and sexual politics; the calming or disquieting influence of a new popular culture – radio and movies – in North America; the forever melodrama of grief; the even-then violent and insatiable nature of male sexuality. (If this were a Margaret Atwood book, some critics would gripe about how all the men are only bad.)

Wright’s Chekhovian compassion motivates him to create characters who are at once sincere and good, and yet dishonest and morally hooped. They call for comparisons to Margaret Laurence’s women – especially those in The Diviners, with its subtext of writing and creation – and to the heroine of Cohen’s Elizabeth and After, a woman so wrong and yet so completely right, so loved and yet despised by her small town.

Wright designs the differences between sisters Clara and Nora with architectural care. When Clara sees the village’s flasher, Boxcar Henry, stumbling drunkenly down the street wearing her father’s best overcoat, she is moved to poetry. Nora responds: “Why would you write a poem about that dirty old Henry Hill and Father’s overcoat? Aren’t there nicer things to write about?” The book’s main tensions – creative, sexual, economic – reside within Clara, though, and not between the sisters.

The novel ends in a way that may seem manipulative and, again, melodramatic. But the end is consistent with the book’s promise, that is, to suggest the high colour of an era of incredible cultural and personal shifts: letter to telephone, literature to radio to motion picture, coal heat to petroleum, lifelong marriage to divorce. Maybe there’s another risk to our own era of change and flash: the fresher the face, the thinner the plot. If so, Richard Wright is an author to learn from, to trust, and to recommend to any generation.