Quill and Quire

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Duet

by David Helwig

Duet seems an oddly refined title for this sourly comic novella by prolific poet and novelist David Helwig. Ending Up would have been perfect for this examination of aging and death, had that title not been claimed already by Kingsley Amis for his similarly themed 1972 novel.

As the title suggests, this is the story of two characters circling and playing off each other, albeit with extreme reluctance. Retired Toronto cop Carman escapes the city and finds himself in a rundown cottage north of Kingston, owned by the sharp-tongued Norma, who lives above the junk store across the road. Carman is haunted by the recent death of his ex-wife, and by the human depravity he witnessed on the force. Norma sees her past as littered with foolish, humourless men – even with her adult son and his new girfriend she is frank to the point of hostility.

The structure of the book feels familiar – two damaged old cranks slowly gain mutual respect and forge a shaky bond – but Helwig makes it work by allowing the relationship to play out at a deliberately slow pace, drawing out the characters on their own terms and rarely forcing conflict upon them. Many of the story’s most dramatic moments occur off the page, undercutting the potential melodrama.

Duet is not an overly ambitious book, but it is satisfying to see Helwig grip his story with both hands, attempting the seemingly modest and much underappreciated task of getting it right without false props, period costumes, or thematic padding. Even at just over 130 pages, the narrative occasionally starts to drift or go flat, but there are also many subtle moments here whose impact would have been lost amid more fired-up prose, as with Norma remembering her ex-husband’s mistress’s pubic hair as “a forest where things happened that gave them joy.”

The only real mistake Helwig makes is with the book’s climax and ending, which are too cute by half, and stir unfortunate echoes of On Golden Pond to boot. Up to that point, Duet is almost perfect in its own small way.