Sunday, October 14, 2007

Imaginative leaps are convincing, a great success

The Book of Beasts
By Bernice Friesen
Coteau Books, 382 pages, $21

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

IN ancient times, it was commonly believed that frogs, flies and other beasties could come to life from rotting meat, mud or even food that had been left out.

Readers of Bernice Friesen's fully formed first novel might be forgiven for thinking that the story was scrabbled up out of the topsoil around Friesen's native Saskatoon.

Part of that comes from the fact that Friesen's oeuvre includes books in radically different genres, including the young adult short fiction collection The Seasons Are Horses (1995) and a book of poetry titled Sex, Death, and Naked Men (1998).

Literary mavens might remember the two published excerpts from The Book of Beasts, one of which later appeared in Best Canadian Stories 2002. But other than that, there hasn't been much on offer from Friesen over the past decade.

Given the deft touch Friesen displays in the finished manuscript, The Book of Beasts (and all the genre-hopping that preceded it) was worth it.

James Wharram-Young is 11, the son of an English bookseller and a 'fallen' Irishwoman, when a tragic accident takes the life of his younger sister.

Soon afterward, his grief-stricken mother returns to Ireland with her son in tow. James, grieving himself, bewildered by his new life, is told very little about his mother's plans.

This uncertainty means that he is never sure if he has been jettisoned by his English father or kidnapped by his Irish mother or both simultaneously.

As you might expect, the story of James' coming of age includes a not-inconsiderable struggle for a solid identity. Is he the English James or the Irish Seamus that his mother introduces around or someone else altogether?

Though the problems that James faces - being born out of wedlock to parents who fell on opposite sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide in the United Kingdom - would not raise an eyebrow now in Canada or the U.K., in his time and place they are a source of great hullabaloo.

Friesen writes authoritatively from the point of view of a young man living in rural Ireland in the late '60s. None of which would be "write what you know," as Friesen was female, raised in Rosthern, Sask., and is 10 years older than her main character.

And it is precisely because of these wholly convincing leaps of the imagination that The Book of Beasts is such a great success.

The only quibble with this immensely pleasurable book is that the last section is both too long and too short.

As a result, its exotic settings and romantic entanglements are reduced to window dressing for the adult James' inevitable negotiation between his heritage, his parents and his faith.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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