David Bergen has always been good at literary ventriloquism. Whether conjuring the consciousness of a horny 16-year-old in The Case of Lena S., or envisioning characters traumatized by the effects of war in The Time in Between and The Matter with Morris, Bergen has always been able to write outside his own points of reference. In his new novel, he attempts to outdo himself in this regard: his protagonist, Hope Koop, is a homemaker and mother of four born in 1930, living in rural Manitoba during the tumultuous era of Women’s Liberation.
The book takes the form of a fictional memoir, following Hope from late childhood to old age. While its episodic structure offers instances of tension, the novel taunts readers who might feel there isn’t enough meat on the bones of Hope’s story. After reading A Passage to India, a book given to her by her far more radical friend, Emily, Hope laments that her own life, comprised of “bleaching sinks, ironing clothes, and holding children” would make for an “agonizingly empty story.” Later, her grown daughter, Penny, announces that she’s going to write a novel with a female protagonist born in 1930, and Hope pleads that it not be too much like her, since such a book would be rather dull. Bergen no doubt wants these moments to come off as ironic, but many readers may find Hope’s assessments right on the money.
Bergen channels Alice Munro, or perhaps Carol Shields, in trying to write a slow-boiling domestic novel with a political undercurrent. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything particularly new or inspired in The Age of Hope. Yes, things happen: Hope has a nervous breakdown and spends time in a mental hospital; her husband Roy’s car dealership fails and bankrupts the family; their son Conner marries a shrew who eventually leaves him; Penny falls in with a religious cult. But the book’s underlying themes have been presented before – and more skilfully – in countless other works.