BOOKS

Be it ever so weird

There’s no place like home, Gowdy style

John Bemrose November 6 1995
BOOKS

Be it ever so weird

There’s no place like home, Gowdy style

John Bemrose November 6 1995

Be it ever so weird

BOOKS

There’s no place like home, Gowdy style

MISTER SANDMAN

By Barbara Gowdy

(Somerville House, 268 pages, $24.95)

Some art can only be described as happy. It seems to have been created in pleasure, and to convey its vision with such a light, smiling touch that it seems effortless. Much of Mozart’s music falls into this category, as do the books of Jane Austen. And so does Mister Sandman, Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy’s third novel—and the one that is likely to catapult this rising literary star into a whole new orbit of fame and regard. Gowdy, 45, has been coming on strong since 1989, the year she published her second novel, Falling Angels (her first, which appeared the year before, was a rather straitlaced historical tale set in Ireland). In Falling Angels, the saga of a doomed suburban family, Gowdy found her voice: mordant, matter of fact, darkly funny. The book was praised internationally and be-

came a best-seller in Germany, where the celebrated film director Michael Verhoeven {The Nasty Girl) is currently adapting it for the screen. In 1992, Gowdy’s story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, won more raves and

took her readers deeper into Gowdy country, a strangely lit place where the human body and human desire often take on unusual forms: one of her characters has two heads, while another enjoys making love to corpses.

Mister Sandman, which was recently nominated for the Giller Prize and a Governor General’s literary award, is a much sunnier book. It actually affirms that much-maligned institution, the family—and it does so by

exploding all preconceptions of what a happy family might be like. At first glance, the Canarys look ordinary enough. They live in suburban Toronto. The father, Gordon, is a book editor. But he is also a closet homosexual at a time (the 1950s and ’60s) when such a predilection was widely considered a shameful perversity. Even his wife, Doris, is unaware of his secret, but then she has one of her own: she is a lesbian. Their eldest daughter, Sonja, is enormously fat and apparently content with her monotonous job packaging bobby pins. Raped as a teenager, Sonja is the mother of the dwarfish, autistic Joan, who always wears sun-

glasses and spends much of her life in a closet. Meanwhile, Sonja’s sister, Marcy, develops a predatory appetite for boyfriends and eventually takes scores of them to bed.

This is a long way from Father Knows

Best. Indeed, taken together, the Canarys sound like a recipe for the final, catastrophic detonation of the nuclear family. But oddly, nothing of the kind happens. Although burdened by problems, the Canarys live in an atmosphere remarkably free of recrimination and judgment. Their astonishing (and moving) tolerance of each other is really a form of love. It creates a kind of visionary calm at the centre of the novel, an abiding sense that all, ultimately, is well—even though, at the time, all hell may be breaking loose.

With many writers, the oddness of the Canarys would provide an irresistible opportunity for melodrama and wild exaggeration. And certainly Gowdy knows how to toy with the preposterous. When Joan is born in 1956, she reputedly emerges from the womb with the cry, “Oh no, not again!” But the narrator of Mister Sandman never confirms that actually happened. The details of Joan’s comic birth are left to float as possibilities— mere hints of the marvelous—in the matrix of the rather ordinary life that Gowdy spins around her family. The Canarys may be unusual, but they do not live beyond the laws of physics. Mister Sandman is so convincing partly because it is so deeply grounded in realities as common as burnt suburban lawns, or the jingling pop tunes—including Mister Sandman—that are forever floating through the heads of the family members.

At the centre of the family and the novel is Joan. The Canarys’ absolute, unaffected devotion to her—she does not appear the least bit odd or repulsive to any of them—touches affectingly on the universal desire of humans to be loved with all their secret deformities and faults. At times, Joan, with her mysterious dark glasses and nimbus of white hair, seems less a character than a mask behind which lurk infinite possibilities for growth and new perceptions. Something about Joan’s quiet stillness—she has not talked after being dropped on her head soon after birth—draws the family to confide in her. At different times, each of the Canarys lie outside her closet, confessing their anxieties in monologues that are really a kind of prayer. Yet if Joan is, in a sense, the household’s spiritual mediator, she is an unexpectedly dangerous one: it is she who finally exposes the family’s hoard of sexual secrets.

Mister Sandman is one of those rare novels that gives sex its true, prominent place in life, without either sensationalism or romantic (or anti-romantic) posing. Several of Gowdy’s characters think about (and have) sex whenever they can. And whatever their hang-ups about it, the novel’s attitude to the sexual appetite—in all its polymorphous urgency—is that it is as natural as rain. There is much else to praise in Mister Sandman, from Gowdy’s laughter-provoking wit to the ingenious circling of her narrative. And it is all brought off with that light, faultless touch, as seductive as an old song adrift on a summer breeze.

JOHN BEMROSE