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Man of Bone

by Alan Cumyn

All prepared for a first diplomatic posting in Beijing, Bill Burridge is sent instead to Santa Irene, a troubled island republic near Vietnam. The republic is fictional, but the scenario of corruption, human rights abuses, and disappearances is familiar. What happens there to the novice Canadian immigration officer – kidnapping and terrorist torture – is the stuff of our worst nightmares.

Cumyn’s powerful third novel grips us with techniques as old as Shakespeare, sharp as Waugh, contemporary as Egoyan. Burridge In Extremis is still blackly funny, allowing us some comic relief. We may attempt ironic distance, viewing the book as a damning critique of bureaucracy and its cynical limits. Canada would be swamped if it accepted every immigrant’s story, Burridge tells a desperate applicant. If a fraction of the tales of kidnap escapes were true, Burridge has been told, traffic would be clogged with people climbing out of trunks of terrorists’ cars.

Burridge transcends living hell by dwelling in the sweet heretofore. We may initially resist childhood memories with seemingly little to do with Burridge’s survival, but as he moves forward to his marriage with Maryse, the birth of their son, Patrick, we bond with these fragile lives. The brief interlude in Santa Irene before the kidnapping is luminous with detail, and carefully evoked emotion – the hot, foul air, gridlocked traffic, Maryse’s migraines. To Maryse, Santa Irene’s officials ooze with corruption; she is nauseated by the lumito, the “two-percent platinum-lined class” who own everything on the island.

We sift the pages for clues. What’s really behind the jokes at the home of Burridge’s superior? Who are the bosses of Burridge’s guard, literally barbecued by Internal Security? Who are the “cowboys” using army methods to torture Burridge? Why does the army gun down Burridge’s rescuers? We conclude Burridge was a sitting duck for forces he is grotesquely underequipped to understand (“Why didn’t I learn about the bloody factions? Factions was next week”). Yet he survives a sadistic deconstruction – on the most basic level, a puddle, a bone-heap, but alive. Man of Bone is technically accomplished, a powerful, moving meditation on brutality, eroticism, love, pain, god, and humanity. The ending is heartbreaking, devastating. How can Burridge bear it? He can do nothing else.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Goose Lane


Price: $17.95

Page Count: 173 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-86492-229-9

Released: May

Issue Date: 1998-5

Categories: Fiction: Novels