Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sometimes the leap is as interesting as landing

The Wonder
By Diana Evans
Random House Canada, 314 pages, $33

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

THE U.K.-based Diana Evans' second literary novel, The Wonder, is concerned with what it has meant to be young, black and British over the past 50 years.

It is also interested in how neighbourhoods, such as London's Notting Hill where her novel is largely set, have changed into something better and worse for their residents, "useful only in [their] ethnic contribution to the area's general feel of being interesting."

Finally, it is preoccupied with the space between dance -- and the deliberate leaping out into the unknown that dancers must be capable of -- and madness.

No shortage of big ideas, to be sure, but is Evans able to clothe and shod them with story? The answer is a qualified "mostly."

Her 2005 Orange Prize for New Writers award-winning debut, 26A, was set, quite literally, in the witchy space between a set of twins but also within the larger circle of a large, mixed-race family, and the larger circle yet of 1970s London.

Its somewhat unfocused intensity and domesticity seemed earned by the subject matter -- children growing up into post-modern life. (Evans herself is a twin and grew up in the same neighbourhood as her character.)

The Wonder, though it has ambition in droves, is cooler and less appealing.

One problem is the book's twinned storylines.

The first features a pair of adult siblings, Lucas and Denise, who have lived together in a rusted-out houseboat since they were orphaned as children.

The second features the comings and goings of their doomed parents, Antoney and Carla, who were part of the black dance scene in England in the '60s.

Lucas and Denise are barely on speaking terms as the novel begins, and it only gets worse between them when Lucas decides to find out more about his long-dead parents. Shiftless at the novel's outset, he spends much of his time stoned and depressed.

(More after the turn...)

While Antoney and Carla's storyline elevates the novel -- and allows former dancer Evans to try her hand at ekphrasis (i.e. writing about art) -- we know from the outset that it is all fleeting.

Which means that readers will most likely be able to admire of and feel sympathy for the elder generation but not much else.

This lack of buy-in, coupled with Lucas and Denise's open-ended but static storyline, kills any momentum the novel tries to build.

And while Evans' concerns seem similar to those of Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem, her characters are not clever or rich. Part of it is that Evans seems not the least interested in satire or even a heavy larding of pop-culture references, favouring documentation instead.

While documentation is valid artistically, it means that Evans' work lacks some of the humour and bite of her acclaimed contemporaries.

A more apt comparison, perhaps, is Canadian Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly (2005), given that Gibb also seems to understand how race, poverty and mental illness operate.

Finally, the paralleling of Antoney's brilliance and then descent into madness with that of Russian great Vaslav Nijinsky seems too neat.

This is not to say the novel isn't worth reading. The scenes set in Antoney's native Jamaica, circa 1950, are nearly flawless, and Evans' writing around about gentrification and the issues facing the children of mixed-race families is worthy of note.

In the end, Evans' sophomore effort isn't technically perfect but it's definitely a leap. And sometimes the leap itself is as interesting as where the dancer, or novelist, ends up.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her first book of poetry will be published in the spring.

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