Tamas Dobozy’s Seige 13, winner of the Writer’s Trust award, (a collection dealing with repercussions -- in the past or in the immediate present -- of the siege of Budapest by the Red Army in 1944) lured me in almost immediately, though these are difficult stories: choking accounts of past horror and betrayal and of the stain that has spread into the lives of many of today’s Hungarian-Canadians who carry shards and echoes within themselves -- guilts and sorrows -- reflected or personal and ingrained. And these fictional characters are also often neighbours, I realized, these are friends, this is the inner life of so much of Canada indeed, in its many iterations – not just those with invisible cords leading back to central Europe but to so many other parts of the world.
And what a debt we owe to writers like Tamas Dobozy for leading us, willing or not, into those interior lands with such bravery.
Ah, and again betrayal: this time a well-meaning man’s betrayal of his own religious beliefs and moral code, and (again) the stain that spreads – this time from an almost accidental act (the purchase of a slave) as it brings disaster to his children and grandchildren…. This is Linda Spalding’s The Purchase, which, above all, plunged me into the reality of life on the Virginia frontier in the very early days of the U.S. establishing itself as a country, in circumstances where the right moral decisions can often be as hard to discern as the wooded fields are to plough.
This is a novel studded with moments where the reader wants to say, “Don’t do it,” to the characters (and particularly to Daniel Dickenson, the widowed father caught up in circumstances that are repeatedly almost beyond his control). “Don’t do it!” or “Why did you do it?” as again and again the hardness of his Quaker ethic collides with what seems like simple humanity; and fatal mistakes roll down the generations. It is a novel where even the telling is studded with lacunae, like the gaps in the thought-processes of the characters themselves and in their communication with one-another: the mystery of their ruinous decisions left to bob just under the consciousness the reader, like potent images in a poem.
Of the three awards under discussion, I now note that the Governor General’s is the only one that has the word “literary” in its title, and Spalding’s novel strikes me as embodying important qualities that go beyond even great story-telling, evocative writing, deep human insights, unforgettable scenes, in the way it raises that most human of conundrums: that in life there are always more questions than answers.
And out of all of that Spalding also allows us the satisfaction of a subtle glint of hope, even though slim as the palest trace of moon, “…waiting to take back the sky.”