Canada by Richard Ford (writer of literary fiction)

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Canada by Richard Ford (writer of literary fiction)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Boundaries abound in this unsettling epic coming of age story of the fragility of events and the crossing of that line between normal and extraordinary from one of the truly great American writers working today.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780747598602

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Richard Ford's Canada opens with one of the best opening lines that I've read in a long time:

First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the most important part.

The story is narrated by the younger twin whose name we will discover but which Ford keeps back for 12 chapters, adding to the sense of unease that characterises this sweeping story set mostly in 1950s. The opening lines are wholly accurate in that they explain the structure of the book, but potentially misleading if this leads you to expect excitement and action. Ford's lyrical language is slow and he comes at things from an oblique angle. It's unsettling and thought provoking.

The first part of the book concerns the bank robbery and the clear themes are those of boundaries. In fact, boundaries abound. There's the line crossed by good people who do bad things, moral boundaries, physical boundaries and the boundaries of coming of age. The last of these is particularly subtle. The narrator's older twin, a girl named Berner, appears much older than her sibling who is more naiive. At the time of events, they are 15 and Berner shows more adult understanding than her more child-like brother. In part, this is a coming of age story of the narrator. Even their father's name 'Bev' seems to span boundaries. The story begins in Great Falls, Montana but their parents have to cross a state line to commit their robbery. But these are not hardened criminals. The robbery is a desperate measure that neither seem to understand the ramifications that may arise.

The second part of the book is the more difficult, with the narrator whisked away by a family friend to Canada before the authorities can find him. Once in Saskatchewan, he encounters a strange world of deserted towns and an enigmatic hotelier, Arthur Remlinger, who has a mysterious past that will once more disrupt the young boy's life. And of course the promised murders. Here, what concerns Ford is things that seem alike but are different, particularly in the Canadian life and the boy's US upbringing. In some ways it seems a shift change from the first part, towards a slower pace of story telling and if you were to not enjoy this book the chances are that it is the rambling pace and repetition of this element of the book. However, the rhythms of the language seem to evoke the vast areas of emptiness of the land. It would not be stretching things to liken Ford to Steinbeck's writing. It's about crossing lines that you cannot go back from.

The much shorter third part brings things up to the present day. In some ways the first of these two chapters is irritating in that it he rather blatantly explains the themes of the book which are all too evident to most readers which seemed a little on the patronizing side. In the second chapter we learn more about the older sister whose life has been almost more fascinating that the one that has been narrated. However, it rounds the book off nicely.

Ford is one of those rare writers who is able to capture the vastness of the North American landscape in his style and who can convey the fragility of life and apparently random events that change lives forever. I enjoyed the first part far more than the second part and it's frustratingly hard to get much of a glimpse of the characters in the book. The conceit of narrating things through the eyes of a young boy, who seems younger than his 15 years, and who doesn't always see things clearly means that questions remain unanswered. Twins is always a fascinating subject matter but beyond the issues of boundaries which indeed are crossed at one point, we don't get much of a sense of the twin relationship.

It may not be my favourite Ford novel, but he's always a powerful writer and this is an unsettling and beautifully drawn book that feels as vast and epic as the landscape in which events play out. You need a love of words to get the most out of this though as language wins the fight over plot development every time.

One final word of warning to UK readers who dislike Americanisms: this book if full of them, but from this most American of authors, what do you expect?

This book came to us courtesy of the Ilkley Literature Festival where the author is appearing on 13 October 2012.

If you still have room for more great American writers talking about crossing very different boundaries, then try In One Person by John Irving. For more about Canada, try No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod or Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart.

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Buy Canada by Richard Ford (writer of literary fiction) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Canada by Richard Ford (writer of literary fiction) at


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