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No Early Birds

by Edward O. Phillips

After 60-year-old Louise Bingham flies to Montreal from her retirement retreat in Victoria, she takes on the task of helping her widowed cousin Diana Hamilton organize a yard sale before moving out of the old family home. Since Edward O. Phillips is the author of this seemingly mild tale of revisiting – and revising – the past, some things are guaranteed. For one, the Montreal in question is haute Anglo Westmount – this is not, bien sur, a novel that will appear on Jacques Parizeau’s reading list. For another, the Wildean wit and generally unrelenting repartee may disorient readers unaccustomed to the notion that comedy can rest comfortably in the soul of sorrow.

Not much happens in No Early Birds. Louise turns up to stay at the autocratic Diana’s home, scene of happy childhood memories. Another old acquaintance, Claire Davidson, whom Louise doesn’t much like, is also involved in the sale. Louise runs into a long-ago lover and contemplates a fling, since she’s bored by her second husband, a nice man who loves Victoria because he can garden his heart out there. The women’s adult offspring wander in and out of the house at 30 Mayfair Crescent. While they sort items for sale the women gossip, reminisce, bicker and drink. And finally, nerves thinned, they tell each other a few carefully kept secrets about their mutual pasts.

That’s about it.

Phillips, author of eight previous novels including the sprightly Geoffry Chadwick mysteries, works like a composer: the merry tune in the treble clef is so catchy, it takes a while to notice the bass notes are building. But build they do – nowhere near tragedy, but toward a common human reality and depth. The tones of the various characters are sometimes too similar – not one of them can resist any tiny opportunity to exercise their wit – but the piece as a whole, never intended as a symphony, works as a fine and oddly touching sonata.