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Touch of the Clown

by Glen Huser

Here’s a fresh and surprisingly funny first novel for young adults – surprising since incontinence, illness, neglect, alcoholism, abuse, AIDS, and a much-mourned mother don’t seem the stuff of comedy. The 13-year-old narrator, Barbara Stanwyck Kobleimer, and her little sister, Olivia de Havilland Kobleimer (Livvy), are pretty much on their own in their rough Edmonton neighbourhood. Daddy and Grandma spend their time swilling sherry in front of the VCR and watching classic old movies – hence the girls’ names. Mama is dead. Livvy often has “accidents” (wetting herself) because she has only one kidney, and Barbara is the one who looks after her. One day the girls meet a clown called Cosmo, who becomes their friend and mentor. Barbara secretly attends his clown workshop, incurring her father’s wrath. And being beaten by Daddy is no laughing matter. Through her friendships with Cosmo, who has AIDS, and Nathan, a native boy from the workshop, Barbara starts to see a future for herself. She also finds solace in books. As in Kathryn Lasky’s Memoirs of a Bookbat, books are a refuge from an unsatisfactory, even dangerous, home life. Cosmo dies, but his positive influence lives on in Barbara’s approach to acting and life. When the girls are taken into foster care, the tone is hopeful without being pat.

This is a very well-written first novel with a strong social conscience and a delightful sense of humour from a writer who respects his readers. Huser is founder of the quarterly Magpie, which features student writing, and children’s book reviewer for the Edmonton Journal. His adult novel, Grace Lake, was a finalist for the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award.