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Emberton

by Peter Norman

With his debut novel, Toronto poet Peter Norman – whose first collection, At the Gates of the Theme Park, was shortlisted for the 2011 Trillium Book Award for poetry – delivers a solid, if flawed, thriller that centres on questions of literacy, language, and meaning.

Lance Blunt is far from an ideal candidate to work at Emberton, the world’s most prestigious dictionary publisher: he is completely unable to read, a condition that has plagued him despite the best efforts of his parents and teachers. “It was as if some kind of veil, the thinnest of fabric, lay over his vision, blurring each word.” Hardly the stuff of a publishing career (even in marketing, where he ends up). But Blunt does not land at Emberton Tower by accident: someone has invited him there, someone who seems to know all about his limitations, which Blunt guards as the darkest of secrets.

Emberton Tower has its own secrets, from the marketing department that does no work to the beautiful etymologist with whom Blunt becomes infatuated. (Equally mysterious is the fact that one of his coworkers spends his time guzzling grey liquid from the radiators.) Presiding over it all is ancient, wizened Mr. Emberton himself. When things start to get weird (well, weirder), it’s no surprise that the firm’s eminence grise is at the heart of things.

Emberton is well-written, in a parsed, almost clipped style. The author does a good job depicting Blunt’s limitations and the coping mechanisms he develops to navigate a world in which words seem to actively oppose him. The mystery of Emberton Tower unfolds nicely, and the climactic revelation satisfies at a narrative level.

Where the novel falters is in its tone. The early pages have the feel of broad workplace comedy, for which Norman demonstrates considerable skill. Possibly too much skill, in fact. As things turn ominous, the tone doesn’t shift; there are scenes late in the book that are clearly horrific, but will elicit laughter rather than a frisson of fear.