André Alexis’s new novella should be neither judged nor dismissed on the basis of its title. The pastoral is often defined by clean images that conjure the simplicity, serenity, and charm of rural places and people. However, Alexis’s story proves there is nothing simple about country life.
Set in a Southwestern Ontario town called Barrow, Pastoral begins with the introduction of an interloper. Christopher Pennant is a young Catholic priest from Ottawa, assigned his own parish in what, at first glance, seems an enchantingly idyllic place: “The dun hay that covered the fields like rotting mats, the crocuses, chicory and dandelions, the songs of birds, the clouds so solid and white it was as if they were being held up from below: everything brought relief and joy.” The narrative teems with such alluring imagery as it floats through the spring, summer, and autumn of a single year.
But Barrow is multifaceted, as are its intriguing denizens. There’s Lowther Williams, a “cursed” man with a dark past. There is the deliciously poetic love triangle between Elizabeth Denny, her fiancé Robbie Meyers, and his girlfriend Jane Richardson, which seems ironically sophisticated for a small town where people can “talk about cow dung for hours.” Even Father Pennant is not simply a man of God. Strange confrontations with nature lead him to a crisis of faith that softens his formerly concrete perspective on life.
Pastoral is Austenesque in its overarching themes of nature, morality, and religion, but it is especially so in its unrestrained and expert use of free indirect discourse, a floating narrative style that combines character speech and thoughts with narratorial commentary. Ian McEwan once wrote that “the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.” Pastoral is a testament to the truth of this statement. It is so flawless, I greedily devoured it in a single sitting and was rewarded with the rarest of feelings: complete satisfaction.