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Governor of the Northern Province

by Randy Boyagoda

Canada, if you believe government websites, is an immigrant’s heaven – a place where grateful newcomers easily weave themselves into our already-rich multicultural mosaic. As anyone who has ever ridden in a cab driven by an Iranian physicist with three PhDs knows, however, the multicultural idyll doesn’t always mirror the immigrant’s reality.

This point is underlined in Randy Boyagoda’s engaging, though often frustrating, debut novel. The book appears to be based on the case of Desire Munyaneza, a refugee-status new Canadian now accused of helping to mastermind the Rwandan genocide. In Boyagoda’s version of the story, a deposed African strongman named Sam Bokarie escapes to smalltown Ontario, where he finds a job at a local variety store and is treated with friendly condescension by the mostly white locals. He is enlisted as a token “grateful newcomer” by an ambitious politician, Jennifer Thickson, whose election campaign occasions a series of arch set pieces (campaign rallies, wedding receptions) centred on the silliness that arises when cultures clash.

Many of these scenes work well, largely thanks to Boyagoda’s sardonic wit, particularly evident in his brutal one-liners. Boyagoda has a knack, too, for creating memorable characters, both flat and round. Bokarie is, unsurprisingly, the best of the latter group – while he frequently puts on a facade of grinning geniality, he is in fact a brilliant politician who, like Tony Soprano, inspires both revulsion for his brutality (revealed in a series of flashbacks) and sympathy for his flashes of genuine humanity.

The book’s critiques – of smalltown racism, of manipulative politicians, and even of cynical immigrants – ring true, though for some readers they will be as familiar as the yay-Canada boilerplate that inspired them. More damaging are the novel’s technical flaws. For every clever one-liner, there’s one that falls flat. For each brilliant set piece, there’s another that drags on too long. Most frustrating is the lack of a real narrative – at best, the book’s “story” amounts to a series of casually linked campaign bulletins.

Governor of the Northern Province’s humour and liveliness are in welcome contrast to the dreary earnestness of so many similar books, but in its weaknesses it is reminiscent of a certain kind of politician – one who uses charm and flash to cover up a lack of interest in the hard, boring work of the day-to-day job.