Timothy Findley is one of those authors who has always simmered away on the backburner for me. He seems overshadowed by his other contemporaries, i.e. the Canadian pantheon: Atwood, Munroe, Richler, Davies, Laurence. Because he was much else - an actor, a critic, I think also a broadcaster? - his writing competes with his other selves. He deserves wider readership, which seems to be something I say every time I review one of his books. Partly, that's a "note to self" - Jen, fer god's sake, why haven't you read EVERYTHING this guy has written by now? And partly, it's because - other than Karen (who lists it as one of her favourites) - none of my GR friends seem to have read this novel.
Ok, well, it's probably not for everyone - you need to like sprawling, multi-generational family sagas. You need to like compelling characters, high drama, the exploration of inner and outer conflict anchored by a specific time and place.
So if you do, put this on your to-read list. Go ahead. Right now. I'll wait.
If you've not yet read any Findley, this is a good one to start with, as it seems 'core' Findley to me. An epic, sprawling story with a central figure - Lily - who struggles with her many demons and is the bright and central spark (heh) of life around which the entire novel revolves. Her son Charlie, the narrator, whose main quest is to know the identity of his father. A Toronto-centric story, focused on the Rosedale set and their particular quirks and cruelties (don't let this discourage you - it is not so place-specific to be inaccessible). Wartime setting mirroring the inner conflicts. Families and traditional roles - and people pushing those boundaries. Mothers and sons. OH - how we have mothers and sons! Secrets. Illness, mental and otherwise. Fire - as an event; as a motif. Music - an occupation, an avocation, a calling, a uniting theme, a scene-setter, a metaphor.
Lots and lots and lots of STORY in this story.
I just love family epics that start with a particular set of people, whom you get to know and love; and then take you through successive generations, whom you meet and grow to love too. This one, like many family sags, is roughly linear, but also cumulative (so you don't have the jarring grief inevitable when the story moves on to the next generation of characters).
If you want a story where you are completely *invested* in the characters, this is it. There is much empathy here: with few exceptions, every character is 'lost' in some way. You have, like Lily, a desire to save each one; to connect with them and protect them from their essential loneliness.
Here, we have Eliza and James - Ede and Tom - Lily and Lizzie and ? (the ? is the novel's central question, although in some ways also its denouement) - Charlie - Ada and Neddy. More, brothers, uncles, half-sisters, friends - each grouping fully conceptualized with a particular drama at the centre; each worthy of their own novel probably. They weave in and out of each other's lives like melody and harmony - break apart and come together again - with Lily being the chorus to whom we always return.
There is a suggestion of something bigger, something almost magical at play - as intimated on the back cover pull quote: "You were always there, Charlie--just the way I was always there myself and all of us, long before the visible parts of our lives began."
That too is Findley-ish: something subtly supernatural. Some spiritual, mystical connection - some oneness that cuts across time, place, social class. Lily's beloved ants and their greetings (I won't give more away than this) - is a sweet and touching expression of this theme.
There are so many reasons to love this book, but I see I've only been circling around the central one: Lily herself. I won't spoil it, because after all, you've all now got this on your to-read list, but Lily is remarkable. Damaged but strong; unique, lovely, heartbreaking. The cruelty she is subjected to - seeing it through 'her' eyes (actually, her son's eyes on her behalf) will last with you. So sad. A true tragic figure, from the beginning. You can't take your eyes off of her - and Charlie won't let you.
If there is a flaw to be found here (and I may still go back and up this to a five, but I have been altogether too generous with my rankings lately): Charlie as narrator intrudes a little too often explaining why he knows what he knows - how it was documented; what conversations he had and how he is able to tell the story of his mother's life in such intimate detail. Perhaps I am a naive reader, but this caused me to think about the novel's structure in a way that distanced me from the otherwise completely compelling story.
An engrossing, wonderful novel.