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Hope in the Desperate Hour

by David Adams Richards

New Brunswick’s David Adams Richards’ new novel, Hope in the Desperate Hour, may be heavy on the “desperate” and light on the “hope,” but he writes about sadness so well and with such just sympathy for his characters, it is a book that leaves the reader with admiration for the veracity of the world he’s created. Richards, who won the 1988 Governor General’s fiction award for Nights Below Station Street, has produced here a work that displays his distinct voice and challenging themes in accomplished form.

The story gets moving quickly, carried on swift, no-nonsense sentences. Too complex to simply relate in a linear synopsis, it will have to suffice to say it’s set in small-town New Brunswick, and involves a mix of characters all intricately related to each other through a few central events in their pasts, culminating in a symbolic tragedy in the present that touches them all. There are the strugglers on the bottom end of the social chain: Peter Bathurst, a former Micmac reservation leader ensnared by bad debts in an effort to bring a casino to the community; and Garth, who could have made it to the NHL but for an unlucky cross-check from a Russian defensemen while still in the juniors. The disappointed middle class is also represented. Among others there is Dexter, the novelist misunderstood by the community about which he brilliantly writes, and Wheems, the fame-hungry, foppish professor who spends his life wishing himself out of the Maritime university town he believes is beneath him.

What all of these characters share, however, are the sufferings of odd and usual1ly unfortunate turns of fate. They always end up doing and saying things other than what they intend, and it is this unavoidable deviation in directions, the accident of changed courses, that lends the novel its considerable poignancy. The plot, too, is believable and structured, delivering a surprising degree of real suspense. But it is the people Richards writes about who truly animate the novel; they are indicative of the talent for which the author has become known.

What must be observed as faults in the novel are an overuse of the paragraph-ending platitude, and the somewhat jumbled climax. Still, these are relatively trivial complaints when put up against Hope in the Desperate Hour’s strengths. Primary among these is the author’s confidence in taking risks in storytelling, and winning on every page. It is a novel that proceeds through constant shifts of time and perspective, and results in an amazing inter-contextuality among the characters. For a book as brief as this one, we get to know a good number of different people very well, and feel deeply for them, which in itself is an accomplishment lesser writers working in the precincts of “minimalist” fiction could learn a great deal from.