The Fifth Business
The Manticore
World of Wonders
Robertson Davies

A most curious thing: three books that I liked but would not recommend, in general. I have been cautiously dipping my toes into Canadian fiction, on the premise that southern Ontario is not that different from the Michigan where I grew up.* For Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant this appears to be the case, for Robertson Davies even moreso. The beginning of The Fifth Business depicts the world of small-town Ontario in the early 1900s, but read to my eyes as essentially the same kind of place central Michigan was in the 1980s: still defined in rigid terms by where in Europe one's ancestors hailed from, preference being given to northern and western Europeans, and the church one attended, right down to the same general stereotypes about Presbyterians, Baptists (a little wacky but all right), and Catholics. Add in to this Davies' extreme interest in Calvinism, which appears and reappears throughout the books, and it's a series as tailor-made to appeal to me as one could imagine.

The central narrative pull of the books is a murder mystery that turns out, at the end, to be no mystery at all. The events which start the story are, in the eyes of the narrator of the first book, of titanic and life-long importance, while for the others they are of no real concern at all. The murder mystery collapses into an observation about the way people pick up or let go of moments in their life, but the collapse is no kind of deflation, the most impressive of narrative accomplishments. It's for this reason that I tend to think there's no reason not to spoil a plot: the answer to the question "Who killed Boy Staunton?" is "no one, really," but the way in which that answer is reached is the remarkable thing.

*My wife's family hails originally from upstate New York, and they appear to be (and have been) much the same.

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