Over a long and lauded career, David Adams Richards has carved out a spot as the chronicler of misery among the impoverished of New Brunswick’s Miramichi River region. With his new novel, he demonstrates that misery is no stranger to the ultra-wealthy, either. In fact, misery – or at least unhappiness – appears in Richards’s worldview to be the human condition. (The author could win in a throwdown with Thomas Hobbes.) In Mary Cyr, Richards increases the tension by opting for a contemporary setting in which social conventions and the rule of law prove to be a veneer masking a state of nature that is indeed nasty and brutal.
At the centre of the novel is the eponymous middle-aged New Brunswicker, now living in Mexico. When the body of a local boy is found in her house, Mary is incarcerated in a Mexican prison. She’s quite clearly innocent but that doesn’t matter once it’s discovered her family owns a mine in which 13 workers died in a collapse – one of them the father of the dead boy. Mary has nothing to do with running the mine but that also doesn’t matter to the enraged Mexicans. And it doesn’t matter that Tarsco Mining had paid millions for safety improvements to the mine; the changes were never made and the money was siphoned into the pockets of the corrupt Carlos DeRolfo – the president of the mine – and his even more vile wife Gidgit. The DeRolfos are connected to a vast criminal enterprise involving drugs, forced prostitution, and murder.
The novel moves back and forth in time, unpacking Mary’s early life and her current situation. Staggering riches have not insulated Mary from hardship; indeed, Mary’s life consists of one tragedy after another. Her father is killed when she is young and her British mother is loathed by the family. Mary is adopted by an aunt who packs her off to school where she is abused by a teacher. The girl’s desperation to be loved is understandable, and how she is treated by her family, with the exception of one cousin, is shocking. And as an adult, life is no better, even though she now has money.
The narration in Mary Cyr is scathing about practically everyone and everything: “The family was attacked gleefully, because of what wasn’t spoken about. You see, the Cyrs were moneyed but from the Maritimes, and this supposed anomaly caused a great deal of consternation among people who had never had money or were not from the Maritimes and had never been able to think for themselves; that is, their money was not Upper Canadian so it must be coarse or vulgar or exploitative – it dealt in gas and oil and lumber and papers.”
It’s hard to think of another novel fuelled by so much anger. Even the people who try to help Mary – most notably former bodyguard John Delano – can’t turn the tide of public excoriation. Mary is a fascinating character but she’s kept always at a distance in the narrative. This approach is appropriate given her painful isolation: that’s her tragedy. Mary is merely a pawn in a much larger power struggle than she can imagine.
Reading this novel is profoundly unsettling. Terrible things happen, and Richards presents them without holding anything back. I won’t forget this book, even if sometimes I want to.