It doesn’t take much to spot the connections between Linden MacIntyre’s intriguing – if somewhat untidy – fifth novel and the author’s own eventful life. A good chunk of the story takes place in the newsroom of a national Canadian broadcaster, just as MacIntyre spent nearly 40 years at the CBC, most notably as a decorated reporter for the current affairs program The Fifth Estate. Cape Breton, another locale crucial to the storyline, is not only where the 74-year-old writer grew up, but has also served as the backdrop for several of his previous novels, including the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, The Bishop’s Man. As a foreign correspondent, MacIntyre covered the aftermath of the gruesome 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. The event, which resulted in the execution of as many as 3,500 mostly Muslim civilians at the hands of a Christian militia, is the new novel’s historical lynchpin.
It also seems fair to assume, given the abundance and precision of detail, that MacIntyre has drained a pint and/or espresso or two at the Only Café, the east-end Toronto hangout that furnishes the novel with its title. Little wonder, then, that The Only Café is imbued with a feeling of lived authenticity – a good thing, too, given the plot’s reliance on unlikely coincidence.
Flipping back and forth through time, the novel tells the story of Pierre Cormier, a Lebanese refugee with a secret past who disappeared during a mysterious boat explosion in Cape Breton. At the time of the accident, Pierre was working as a high-priced lawyer for an exploitative Canadian mining company. Five years after Pierre’s presumed death, his son, Cyril, an unpaid CBC newsroom intern, tries to reassemble the events of his father’s life, including the older man’s possible involvement in the aforementioned Lebanese massacre.
This brings Cyril in contact with the inscrutable Ari, an Israeli agent who also has links to past events in Lebanon. A fixture at the Only Café, Ari had established a connection with Pierre after a chance encounter at the bar, not long before Pierre’s disappearance. Ari’s interest in the Only Café relates to its proximity to a nearby mosque, where he seems to have some role in staking out potential Muslim extremists. The possibility that a foreign intelligence agency is operating on Canadian soil just happens to be one of the stories Cyril is working on for the CBC, adding yet another convenient layer of narrative fortuity.
It all starts to feel a bit baggy, especially when you lard in complications related to Pierre’s two marriages, his cancer diagnosis, and an insufficiently explored Indonesian mining debacle that causes him to lose his job. Fortunately, there is a sufficient level of intrigue to sustain the reader’s interest, even if the various loose ends don’t always reach a satisfactory resolution. Less, in this case, would have been more. The Only Café seems determined to serve up an over-whipped macchiato, when a leaner, more minimal shot of espresso would have proved more satisfying.
Correction: The print version of this review misidentified the character of Ari as Ira. Q&Q apologizes for the error.