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Book Reviews

Mary Ann Alice

by Brian Doyle

Plot has never been a big concern of Brian Doyle’s. The closest he came to a traditional narrative was probably Angel Square, when his young hero Tommy became a private eye (modelling himself after the Shadow, a popular radio drama hero of the period) to figure out who beat up his Jewish friend’s father. Still, as with all of Doyle’s books, what made the story so exceptional was the oral rhythm of the writing, the strong sense of time and place, the humour, and the rich interior and domestic lives of his characters. Doyle’s so good he barely needs a plot to keep you reading: you’re content to simply watch his characters live.

In his latest novel, Mary Ann Alice, the situation that provides the novel’s impetus and structure is the construction of the Paugan Dam on the Gatineau River near Low, Quebec, in 1928. His hero is 12-year-old Mary Ann Alice McCrank, aspiring poet, early developer, dreamer of thrillingly prophetic nightmares. She tells the story, and her voice is lively, sharp-tongued, and at times nicely self-satisfied (“I’m quite poetic, I don’t mind saying. Did you notice?”). Mary Ann Alice is far from a traditional protagonist: she doesn’t make much happen. She’s the observant centre in Doyle’s effervescent constellation of characters and anecdotes and stories.

Among the characters, we have her teacher, amateur geologist Patchy Drizzle, who’s unhappily married to the appalling Victoria Drizzle. (She nursed Patchy back to health in England after the Great War, married him, and arrived in the Gatineau to discover she detested the landscape, its people, and her husband.) We have the Corks, a poor farm family with no formal claim to their land, who stand to see their farm completely flooded out, without a penny of compensation from the power company. We have the drama of the building of the dam, and its multiple tragedies: the death of one of Mary Ann Alice’s dimwitted classmates, who electrocutes himself; and a dynamite accident that causes a flash flood, claiming the life of Patchy Drizzle while he is collecting rock samples in a riverside cave. Two key questions span the novel as a whole, the first public, the second very private. How bad will things get when the river finally rises? And will Mary Ann Alice McCrank finally let Mickey McGuire Jr. kiss her?

Digression is a linchpin of Doyle’s writing style and sense of humour – features of the oral tradition that suffuses his work. Take the church picnic early in the novel. It spans four chapters and 15 pages, and is a masterpiece of delayed gratification in which, quite literally, nothing actually happens. Mary Ann Alice’s vibrant stream-of-consciousness narration takes us seamlessly through one anecdote and triggered memory after another, before coming to the main item of business. People are talking about why local farmer Mean Hughie rolled up a visiting lawyer from the power company in binder twine, slapped him on a sawhorse and threatened to saw his head off. “It’ll only hurt quite a bit at first,” Mean Hughie promises the petrified lawyer.

Why did this happen? We don’t know. First there’s a lot of discussion about exactly how Mean Hughie rolled the lawyer up, then Mary Ann Alice veers off into a discussion of the wonders of binder twine, and its myriad uses around farm and home. Then (get this) just when it seems we’re to get some answers, the prime minister arrives (it’s Dominion Day), steps out of his limo, says something that no one really hears, gets back in, and leaves. Only then, at the end of four chapters, do we find out what the lawyer said to so anger Mean Hughie.

The risk of so many anecdotes and digressions is that they can dilute narrative energy and leave a young reader floundering, wondering what happened to the main character and main plot. But Doyle pulls it off, in part because his narrator has energy to burn, and his meandering river of events is so graceful you scarcely notice you’re being floated astray. Indeed, Doyle seems to be giving the reader a mischievous wink when he has Mary Ann Alice tortuously describe who’s related to whom, and then wrap up with: “But never mind all that. You’ll never be able to keep it straight anyway so just forget I ever tried to explain it in the first place.”

Doyle’s writing has always contained elements of the tall tale (how else could he get away with names like Fuzzy and Frank McCrank, or Patchy Drizzle?), and his scenes in the mess hall during the construction of the dam achieve a hyperbolic hilarity as the workers devour more food more furiously than you might like to contemplate. At its very best, Doyle’s writing achieves a perfect fusion of humour and poignancy, as when Mary Ann Alice describes the Paugan Falls near her home:

“But it’s quiet up here at our farm. You don’t really hear the roar of the falls. But it’s there.

You don’t hear it but you do.

The way you listen to your heart at night in bed.

If you want to hear your heart, you can. But if you don’t, well then just go on ahead and go to sleep and forget about it.”

Throughout the novel, the writing is pretty near perfect, spare and evocative. In Mary Ann Alice, Doyle has created a wonderful hero with an unforgettable voice. Through the rich swirl of life she describes, we never lose sight of her as our main character, or forget her own powerful feelings about the events and people around her. She’s a grand storyteller, and she makes you feel she’s telling the story directly to you, and you alone. As you travel the imaginary world of Doyle’s Gatineau River, you’ll be glad to have Mary Ann Alice at the tiller.