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Richard Ford
Ecco / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-69204-8
Publication Date: 05-22-2012
420 Pages; $27.99
Date Reviewed: 06-10-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index  General Fiction  Mystery  

We are formed in the forge of a fire we do not know surrounds us. The events that mark us deeply are dimly understood, and only in retrospect. If we do manage to look back on our lives, the crimes that have been committed in our names, in our lives, may or may not seem criminal. Richard Ford's 'Canada' immerses us in lives, then crime, then consequence, with prose that carves up our memory, line by line. Remembering is a tricky business. We can remember who we were; it's a little harder to forget who we are. Ford knows how to tread that fine line and produce a tense, beautiful novel of crimes and lives, past and present that will haunt the reader as if they were a life lived and never forgotten.

Dell Parsons, the fifteen year-old protagonist, is up front about what's going to happen; robbery and murder. His family is the human equivalent of a classic American four-door sedan. His father, Bev, is an easygoing, shallow ex-Air force bombardier, his mother, a tense, withdrawn Jewish schoolteacher. Dell has a twin sister, Berner, older than he by six minutes and wiser by virtue of a more forceful personality. Bev's fast-talking shenanigans lead inexorably to a bad decision, and worse consequences. Dell ends up in Canada in the care of men with few morals, and lives to see things worse than his parents in prison.

Narration is the key to Ford's engaging novel. Ford infuses the limited vision of his adolescent protagonist with the language but not the wisdom of the man telling the story. The result is a constant tension, as Dell observes events he does not comprehend, but that we as readers understand all too well. Ford's prose is polished and solid but never slick; in every page you'll find portions of the narrative that you'll want to read aloud, to hear Ford's words ring in the air. He writes with an undercurrent of almost savage comprehension, but there's a hint of sweetness and nostalgia as well. Dell may have been through some hard times, but he's no more damaged goods than most of us.

'Canada' is a spectacular example of crime fiction, from plot to perspective and beyond. Ford ratchets back on the angst and the action, leaving much of what happens offstage and playing down everything else. Against the huge empty backdrop of the northwest and the Canadian plains, these troubled and often troubling characters act casually no matter how dark the consequences. Ford uses Dell's limited perspective to squeeze in much more than Dell describes, leaving the reader to unpack the raw terror of exactly what has happened. Ford deals in deep dread and the penny-ante with equal ease. There's a naturalistic anarchy to the plot that is appropriately startling. This is life; anything can happen, mostly bad stuff.

The structure of the novel is an admirable aspect of the reading experience, with two almost self-contained major portions followed by a coda. There's a musical feel about the book, in the prose, the characters, the lovely descriptions. It has the feel of a prairie opera, mournful, observant and joyous. Ford keeps everything utterly realistic, no matter how hard the consequences may be.

But while 'Canada' deals with harsh reality, it's not ultimately a harsh vision. Make no mistake; Ford does not offer easy redemption. He offers clarity and complexity, a tough, agreeable acceptance that times will be hard — and survivable, perhaps even with a bit of grace. 'Canada' takes the reader on a journey that only a great novel can achieve. It's deceptively easy to read and very difficult to put down. It's even harder to forget. It is a fire that will forge new memories for readers, some grim, some good, but all, ultimately, real. It is a novel with a horizon, and that which lies beyond any horizon, the unknown.

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