Friday, January 7, 2011

Murther & Walking Spirits

Connor Gilmartin is killed by his wife's lover in the opening sentence, but it is not his own life that flashes before his eyes. Instead he sees the lives of his forebears -- the Welsh Gilmartins and the Vermeulen-Gages, Loyalists of Dutch stock who fled New York during the Revolution.

These two families experience lots of ups and downs, illustrating a saying in the book attributed to Heraclitus -- "anything, if pursued beyond a reasonable point, turns into its opposite." During the course of the story more than one rags-to-riches-to-rags story is told, in terms of wealth, religion, and love.

As usual, the prose of Davies is a pleasure to read, polished but not flashy, filled with great lines and imaginative diction, and managing somehow to be both earthy and erudite. A few favourite quotes:

a killing moustache

orray-eyed drunkards

the winey air of Canada

the gumbo of their emotions

the lion-like face of Gladstone

an ill-used toy of circumstances

she dashed off arpeggios like confetti

donkey liver fricassee, and orange Jell-O to top it off

the spirit of a very rich fruitcake, made habitable

clothes that looked as if they had been made not by tailors but by upholsterers who had heard tell of the human figure but had never seen one

What is a pistol to a bear?

The novel is populated by a huge cast of characters, many of them minor yet wonderfully named: Hugh McWearie, Tabitha Drinker, Liz Duckett, Elsie Hare, Guinevere Gwilt, Reverend Cattermole, Louida Beemer, Forty-Pie Doane, and Bug Devereux ("so called because, when he was seventeen, his face welled hugely and at last burst, and a great black bug crawled out of it, spread its wings, and flew away").

Yet despite the fine writing, the book doesn't quite reach the level set by the Cornish trilogy. It gets off to an excellent start, but begins to wallow a bit midway through. Part of the problem may be a lack of overall cohesiveness. The narrator, Connor Gilmartin, is present throughout but remains a minor character, his role mainly that of an observer. In the end he achieves self-knowledge, but it seems a rather thin discovery.

And while there are deft touches of humour throughout the book, there is no memorable comic scene or character. Of the latter, two of the most interesting are Thomas Gilmartin and William McOmish, but they occupy the stage for too short a time.

The Gilmartins

Thomas Gilmartin is a Welsh weaver-preacher who adopts a pot-boy named Gwylim Griffiths and renames him Wesley Gilmartin. Wesley has two sons, Samuel and Thomas.

Thomas finds work as a servant, while Samuel becomes a tailor and his children include Walter and Polly. Polly marries the untrustworthy John Jethro Jenkins, and they move to Canada.

Walter marries Jenkins's sister Janet, and they have several children, including Rhodri. Their family too relocates to Canada.

The Gages

After her husband is killed, Anna Vermeulen Gage and her children flee overland to Canada. Her daughter Elizabeth marries Justin Vanderlip. Cynthia and Virginia are their grandchildren. Cynthia is lame and mean-spirited; she marries Dan Boutell, who eventually skips out on her. The frigid Virginia marries a master builder named William McOmish, who goes broke building a church. Their children include Malvina and Minerva.

The Two Lines Merge

Rhodri Gilmartin marries Malvina, who in lying about her age causes a rift between them. She is firmly rooted in Canada, while his dreams lie in Wales, where he eventually buys and furnishes Belem Manor. Their son Brochwel (Brocky) Gilmartin is the father of the dead narrator, Connor Gilmartin.

Not a word is said about the narrator's mother, Nuala Connor. Her story is most likely taken up in the next book (The Cunning Man) of this unfinished trilogy.