Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's All my Dad's Fault

The Manticore

Robertson Davies


Reviewed by: Terry  

4 out of 5 stars


I wavered between demoting this to a 3 star (really 3.5) and keeping it at a 4, but I think it deserves a 4 even if it isn’t near my favourite of Davies’ work and is, I think, the weakest of the Deptford trilogy. We were first given an account of the small town of Deptford, and the players who would be the major cast of characters in the series, in Fifth Business under the guiding hand of Dunstan Ramsay. Now we see things from a different angle: David Staunton, the hard drinking criminal lawyer son of Deptford’s golden boy magnate Boyd Staunton, has come to a crisis. His father has just been found dead, possibly murdered, and this is the last straw of the many pressures on his life. After shouting out the query “Who killed Boy Staunton?!” in the theatre (at Magnus Eisengrim’s performance of the Brazen Head no less) he hurriedly bustles himself off to Zurich for psychoanalysis. From here we get his account of not only his own life but the lives of his father and Dunstan Ramsay (amongst others) as they intersected with his.

Perhaps it can be viewed as a strength, but in some ways I think Davies’ decision to couch this novel in the form of the psychoanalytical treatment undergone by David was perhaps more of a weakness. I think I prefer when his Jungian obsessions come in through the side door as it were, and this blatant explication of the Jungian method was perhaps a tad on the heavy-handed side. David is also no Dunstan Ramsay. Ramsay was certainly not always sympathetic, but David is downright unpleasant: a drunk with daddy issues whose many decisions in life seem to have all been calculated responses to the perceived slights visited upon him by others (especially his family). I’m being a bit harsh perhaps, but David certainly won’t be winning any personality contests. He is, it must be said, unwaveringly honest (with others and himself) and certainly he grows, as is the point of psychoanalysis, so he is far from an uninteresting character. Thus we are treated to a ring-side seat of David Staunton’s life. We see more of Boy Staunton than was the case in Ramsay’s reminiscences though even here he is more of an overarching shadow cast across David’s life than a fully realized person (indeed the more I think of it, the more Boy Staunton seems to hold a very special place in the Deptford trilogy: he is a central figure to the action who looms large in the lives of all of the other characters, but we never see things from his perspective or get a full picture of him as a real person as opposed to a foil for others). Ramsay is amusingly portrayed as the somewhat eccentric schoolmaster as seen by a child who may also share a deeper relationship with the child than either of them would want to admit. It is often a pleasure of serial works to be able to see the same characters and situations detailed in another work from a different perspective and that pleasure is on full display here. Characters from Deptford, both major and minor, are portrayed either with more or less detail than before, but certainly show other sides of themselves than we had previously been privy to. They in essence become more fully human, not to mention subtly transformed, from their first appearance to us.

I must admit that I by far enjoyed the final section of the book the most where we encounter old friends and some resolutions to outstanding questions are provided. This is not to say that David’s memoir of his life, as recounted to his analyst, is without interest, but he is certainly a character who lacks the flair and je ne sais quoi of Dunstan Ramsay. This book is a good read (I haven’t yet come across a dud by Davies) but even though Davies’ books can stand alone quite well I definitely recommend that you start your journey through the streets of Deptford (and Toronto) with Fifth Business.

Also posted at Goodreads

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