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Book Reviews

The Glass Harmonica

by Russell Wangersky

In this fractured tale of violence, obsession, and dirty secrets, Newfoundland author Russell Wangersky goes behind the picturesque facade of the brightly coloured clapboard houses that make up a working-class St. John’s neighbourhood. McKay Street is in a typical modern, high-density residential area. The inhabitants feel no real sense of community, but share an abiding suspiciousness that manifests itself in voyeuristic tendencies freely indulged behind drapes and darkened windows.  

The secret history of McKay Street goes back nearly 40 years, and Wangersky skips back and forth in time to fill it in. A woman is silenced by a stroke. A young man is quietly shuffled off to prison. A nosey old lady is sent to a retirement home where she talks away without anyone listening to a thing she says. 

Wangersky does a good job evoking the texture of McKay Street – the way passing headlights shining on a set of drapes set them moving across a wall, or “the kind of night when the air hangs still and wet, like sweaty clothing” – but he doesn’t always make an effective use of voice to give the locals distinct personalities. Too often the characters are employed simply to fit another piece into the narrative puzzle and then abandoned. The most interesting character, a travelling sales rep for a snack food company who is crippled when his vehicle collides with a moose, is also the most tangential to the plot. 

What is impressive, however, is Wangersky’s decision not to sentimentalize these people or the way they live. McKay Street is frankly depicted as a hostile, dangerous place characterized by lousy weather, economic hardship, and random violence. The one “come-from-away” character we meet is brutally murdered. The closest thing to a hero is a young man who finally decides to break with the past, sell his parents’ house, and move to British Columbia (that is, as far away as he can get).