The eighth novel by Scotiabank Giller Prize winner David Bergen continues the Winnipeg writer’s exploration into the complicated lives of ordinary people. Bergen is a master at delving into the psychology of his characters, often revealing their essences by dramatizing their own lack of self-awareness.
Bergen’s language is measured and literary, and the novel is peppered with allusions and quotations. The opening, set in 1955, recalls Tristram Shandy as the narrator, Arthur, recounts his birth and early days. The novel’s first sentence demonstrates effectively what Arthur wants and how he articulates what is important: “[T]o be an individual, to makes one’s way; to shape and form oneself in a unique manner, to live forever, to love and be loved . . . to speak the truth.” The novel is a Bildungsroman, and Arthur is precocious and hyper-literate while also being woefully dense about his own nature.
Fortunately, Arthur knows he has much to learn about himself and his family. His strong-willed mother, a nurse, is Mennonite. His father is a ranch hand. His brother, Bev, is Arthur’s opposite. Instead of the life of the mind, Bev wants action, but his attempt to find it by enlisting to fight in Vietnam ends in sorrow. For his part, Arthur simply doesn’t fit in. He finds solace in his feisty, smart cousin, Isobel.
The first half of the novel follows Arthur to the end of his teens, and the second half deals with his ongoing search for meaning while living in Paris and trying to write. Through it all, Arthur remains foolish and confused and driven. Nothing that happens is particularly unusual; Bergen’s gift is to make it all matter. He manages to make the reader want to smack Arthur while simultaneously caring about what happens to him.
Bergen’s gentle, sensitive, and intelligent style embeds Arthur in the mind of the reader while also making clear how much he, like the rest of us, still has to learn.