4 Dec 2013

Richard Ford's novel Canada

Richard Ford is currently one of North America's most esteemed novelists, yet his early career as a writer in the late 1970's was so low on the sales side that he became a teacher, and then a sports writer in order to earn a living. This experience fuelled his first successful novel, entitled (surprise, surprise!) The Sportswriter, which was about a failed novelist turned sportswriter. It was also about family relationships and their dramas: in this case the emotional crisis experienced by the main character following the death of his son. This was in 1986. Ten years later he won both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner prizes for his novel Independance, which I read a few years ago and loved.

Richard Ford (photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Ford's latest novel Canada, published in 2012, is not about sports of any kind but it is very much about family dramas and their consequences. In fact the main theme could be said to be that of resilience. In this instance it is observed and developed from an adolescent's perspective, following his parents' failure to provide what is generally considered to be a "suitable environment" for young people. The unpredictable consequences of ill-considered acts may, and sometimes do, create havoc down the line. But the point of this book is not so much any form of moral judgment passed on those involved in such acts as an exploration of the miracle and mechanisms of survival for those whose lives are transformed, ostensibly and manifestly for the worse, by irresponsible decisions that others have taken.

The cover of the French edition of this book, which has won the 2013 Femina prize for non-French litterature in France. I read this version, well translated it seems, although I usually choose to read original versions whenever possible.

The story, which I will not relate, develops slowly and with an inexorable quality that lends it a dark weight. The first part sets the scene, the milieu and family situation. After the event that transforms their lives, the second part sees one of the diverging paths of the two children pursued, whilst the other is left. The resulting differences are observed right at the end of the book when brother and sister come together, briefly. This short and final part forms a kind of postscript to show that one, at least, has emerged, more or less unscathed, from the catastrophe. In between, throughout the second part of the book, Dell (the boy) manages to survive other forms of horror via the occasional break and despite constant adversity, coupled with indifference on the part of most adults around him. 

Yet, depite the darkness of reality, the tone has little to do with Dickens. The story is simply told, and in detail, but pathos is put aside. The turn of the narrator's life (Dell narrates his own story) when he emerges towards survival is noted, but not explored. Ford has subtly made the crucial point that it was Dell's will to resume his interrupted education that, together with a couple of lucky encounters, provide the possibility for him to emerge from the catastrophe that befell him at an early age. Interestingly, the two chance encounters that help him on his way out of darkness are with women. Men fail him throughout.

Ford's style is not flamboyant, and, as I have said, avoids pathos. Yet his use of language is fine and precise. He tells a story in an almost flat, matter-of-fact manner, just occasionally opening up to what he himself describes as  "the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive." The book's exploration of its theme is also convincing and questioning, leaving its part to accident, that eternal resource of the story-teller. For me, a feeling strongly emerges from this book that roots are not so much about one's background as what one carries within, like a bonsai tree carries its roots from one pot to another. Dell has been deprived of his traditional "roots" and never feels inclined to return to them. He builds his own, finding his own way in a manner that could not be pre-determined by his family background.

So, read on.....