BOOKS

Frontier secrets

Jack Hodgins spins a dark Victorian tale

VICTOR DWYER October 29 1990
BOOKS

Frontier secrets

Jack Hodgins spins a dark Victorian tale

VICTOR DWYER October 29 1990

Frontier secrets

BOOKS

Jack Hodgins spins a dark Victorian tale

INNOCENT CITIES By Jack Hodgins

(McClelland & Stewart, 393 pages, $27.95)

A little more than a century ago, Victoria was a quiet port located on a sparsely inhabited island in one of the remotest reaches of the British Empire. Home to about 7,000 people, it was, as Jack Hodgins portrays it in the opening pages of his new novel, Innocent Cities, “an infant city, ” the first sizable settlement of Anglo-Saxon civilization on “an island where little had previously happened since the beginning of time. ” But the characters in Hodgins’s inventive and disquieting fourth novel quickly make up for centuries of lost time, showing just how uncivilized the civilized world can be. Innocent Cities deftly combines a complex tale of intercontinental intrigue with a sombre lesson about the devastating effects of small-town gossip.

The novel has the masterful touch of a writer who knqws his setting intimately. Hodgins grew up in the town of Merville, 220 km northwest of Victoria, where he now lives, and his earlier novels are also set on Vancouver Island. Still, as he demonstrated in those books—including his satire about the effects of a tidal wave, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne{\919), which won the Governor General’s literary award—Hodgins’s greatest talent lies in his ability to create memorable portrayals of vivid, sometimes disturbing, individuals. Innocent Cities also features such characters, and they come from around the island and across the Empire, bringing knapsacks and steamer trunks full of dark secrets and even darker motives to the outpost.

Holding centre stage in the story is Kate Jordan, a widow with a regal bearing and a sharp tongue who has just arrived from Australia with her two young children. Jordan hints cryptically to anyone who will listen that she knows a lot of secrets about some prominent Victoria inhabitants. Eventually she reveals that she once knew hotel-owner James Homcastle, who years earlier had moved to the

town with his wife, Norah. “I have come here,” Jordan confides to a friend of James Homcastle, “to set things right.”

Jordan claims that 23 years earlier, while she was living in the English city of Manchester, she and James Homcastle fell in love and secretly married. But he soon sailed to San Francisco in pursuit of a better life, promising to send for her when he had become established. After not hearing from him for several years, she moved to Australia, where she married a dry-goods merchant named Mr.

Jordan. He subsequently died of consumption, leaving her the destitute mother of their two children.

A humiliated Homcastle concedes that he did marry Jordan, but insists that he made an attempt years later to lure her to San Francisco, where he had become a successful saloon owner. He explains that, on the advice of a colorful psychic named Mrs. Opal, “a big, loud, gaudy woman with the several chins and the twin titanic bosoms,” he sent Jordan a letter and $500 for her passage to San Francisco. Her reply, he claims, was an envelope containing his own picture, ripped into pieces. Believing

that his wife had rejected him, he married his barmaid and moved north to Victoria. But now he concedes that Jordan is his rightful wife, and he allows her to move into the hotel, setting up his barmaid wife as the manager of a boardinghouse.

Homcastle’s tale of clandestine wedding vows, mystical advice and unintended bigamy only hints at a deeper, increasingly complex story. Homcastle confesses that he was also engaged to Jordan’s sister, Susannah, now a brooding spinster who travels to Victoria intent on exacting her own pound of flesh from Homcastle—and from Kate. The supematurally inclined Mrs. Opal, it turns out, was close friends with a barmaid named Norah Thompkins. And neither Opal nor Thompkins was above using a small measure of deception to convince Homcastle to forsake his first wife.

As the web of deceit is revealed, the resulting gossip and innuendo slowly begin to claim other victims. Learning that her mother was a willing bigamist, the Homcastles’ sassy eldest daughter, Adelina, degenerates into a sad, bitter woman. Cruelly rejecting a proposal of marriage from her awkward suitor, Logan Sumner, she tells him that she has other plans for her future. “I shall be one of those women you see leaning against the walls,” she says. “I won’t pretend, with playacting, like my mother, to be anything else but a whore.”

Sumner, meanwhile, is left heartbroken by Adelina’s transformation—at least until another of Kate Jordan’s sisters, the lighthearted Annie, comes into his life. Their playful romance provides Innocent Cities with a welcome bimst of levity. But Hodgins is less successful with other, more strained attempts at injecting a measure of relief to what is essentially a brooding parable about the destructive power of vengeance. Particularly cumbersome is a rambling subplot involving a native Indian named I Zachary Jack and his attempts ? to invent an airplane.

^ Hodgins’s storytelling is at “ its strongest when he concentrates on the weakest aspects of the human condition. His examination of the crippling effects of hatred and hypocrisy is at times stunning. Particularly powerful is his depiction of Jordan’s degeneration from a proud and haughty woman to an individual consumed by paranoia and envy, “the handsome face which had once confronted the world with interest and confidence, drawn tight and deeply cut as though with wires.” The story of a small town in an ostensibly simpler time, Innocent Cities digs deep into the human character, seeking out the hidden, often nasty, baggage that people carry with them.

VICTOR DWYER