Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Tarcadia, by Jonathan Campbell

I first learned of Tarcadia after reading and reviewing an anthology that its publisher, Gaspereau Press, put out in 2007, which included an excerpt from Campbell’s novel. His was one of the stand-out pieces in that collection, and so I jumped at the chance to buy his book when I found it in a used bookshop in Charlottetown while home on vacation last summer.

Before I praise Campbell’s writing further – and there is much to praise about it– I do want to get one negative comment out of the way first. This novel suffers from what I have come to call “drowned brother syndrome”, a trope that keeps cropping up in numerous works of Canadian fiction. It has become a running gag in our household whenever I discover yet another Canadian novel that uses a beloved brother drowning in a lake, or a river, or the ocean, as a kind of quick-and-dirty shorthand to imbue one’s protagonist with an air of tragedy. To his credit, Campbell creates a unique twist on this trope by the end of his book, but I nonetheless groaned after reading Tarcadia’s opening sentence.

Now. Despite the dour presence of this “drowned brother” premise – and it is present throughout the narrative, as Campbell chooses to tip his hand on the first page and then work backwards from there – what we find in his prose are sentences that hum with both keen observations and startling humour. The story, set in Sydney, Cape Breton in 1974, details the life of 13-year-old Michael and his older brother Sid, who build a raft out of scraps they find around Sydney harbour and use it to sail around that town’s polluted tar ponds. This crafty invention provides the boys with a much needed refuge from the various trials of life: their parents’ crumbling marriage, looming concerns over their own academic performance at school, and the precarious economic outlook of Cape Breton itself.

The literary allusion here is obvious: this is an homage to Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist of which builds his own raft in order to hide away from some difficult truths emanating from the adult world. But Campbell’s book is also uniquely Cape Breton in its focus, uniquely Sydney. My own father’s side of the family is from there and I made annual visits to the place as a child, so I’m well aware of the details Campbell captures of its culture and its struggles. The steel plant, coal mines, and other sources of industrial wealth can both give and take away; and the families who choose to stay there must live in acceptance of the region’s economic vicissitudes. This is the biggest metaphor in Tarcadia: Michael and Sid’s raft is cobbled together by what the place throws away. “Salvage rights” is a term that crops up numerous times in the story, and it could be a summation of Sydney. It could be an alternative title for this novel.

What sometimes feels missing from Tarcadia, however, is a solid plot. Beyond the framing structure of the “drowned brother” incident, there isn’t really a cohesive narrative arc that holds the book together. Consequently we get what seems like a very episodic story, with the episodes varying in degrees of quirkiness. There is a scene in which the family’s kitchen table collapses right at the start of Christmas dinner, acting as a harbinger of doom. There’s a car accident that nearly kills a young girl. There’s that time Sid went away to cadet camp and came back with stories to tell.

Thankfully, Campbell’s writing is so lively, so fresh and humorous, that we never find ourselves bored even as these narrative installments don’t quite cohere. For a book that reveals its main plot point on the first page, Tarcadia comes with a surprising amount of tension. What’s more, you will no doubt want to live vicarious through the boys’ many sails across the tar ponds as they seek out a life of adventure for themselves.  

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