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The Origin of Waves

by Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke is not the first African-Canadian novelist, though he is one of the most esteemed – and most prolific. While Clarke follows early Ontario writers Martin Delany and William Stowers in chronology (they issued their landmark novels in 1860-62 and 1894), he eclipses them in eminence. And when Clarke published his first novel, Survivors of the Crossing, in 1964, he became, ipso facto, the literary tribune of anglophone African Canadians (particularly those of West Indian heritage), a position the Barbados-born author has never relinquished.
The Origin of Waves, Clarke’s eighth novel, will add to his reputation as an august chronicler of the lives of black immigrants. Resembling a fin-de-siècle, Torontonian version of Plato’s Symposium, the novel narrates the chance encounter, after 50 years, of two childhood friends – John and Timmy – on Yonge Street. Ensconcing themselves in a tony bar, the men reminisce about their blissful childhoods in Barbados, the victories and disappointments of their lives abroad, and, crucially, their fortunes in love. A naturalized American, John is a garrulous braggadocio who presents himself as a lady’s man. Timmy, on the other hand, is a New Canadian – reticent and introspective – who keeps up a nostalgic, interior monologue while his friend commandeers the conversation.
Though Timmy seems weak and morose, spending his nights at home with a glass of Scotch in one hand and a can of insecticide in the other (to kill the wood ants consuming his Rosedale house), Clarke subverts the loud-mouthed Yankee and shy Canuck depictions so that Timmy’s experience of love emerges as the more moving, braver, and authentic of the two.
Clarke’s style is clean, direct, mature, and he uses rhetorical devices to vivid effect. The narrative, which expands on a story from Clarke’s 1993 collection, There Are No Elders, is comedic, aphoristic, and blessed with imagism: “her thighs are like two rebellions of passion”; “I remember her eyes were as thin as a slit of glee pressed tight with anticipation”; “how unsmiling an old man’s walk.” Such are the grace notes of an elder writer’s career – and of a vital, exquisitely written, and memorable novel.