Thursday, December 15, 2005

An Inside View of a Life Unravelling

Before now, I’d never given David Gilmour’s fiction a chance. For many years, Gilmour was a fixture on CBC television’s arts beat and I found his media persona -- a species of hard-living ladies’ man -- rather off-putting. His early fiction appeared to be very much in sync with that media persona and so didn’t capture my interest. I flipped through his books in the bookstore or in the library, but never took one home. I realize that the media persona may not be an accurate reflection of the man himself and, even if it is, that I don’t have to like a person to like the fiction that they create. Still, there are a lot of books in the world, and sometimes the flimsiest of reasons is enough to make me choose one book over another.

But when Gilmour’s latest novel, A Perfect Night to Go to China, won the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, friends whose opinions I respect, who often like the same books I do, who rarely get excited about what writer wins what prestigious literary award, got very excited. They pronounced it a brave and brilliant choice. I went out and got myself a copy of the book.

At the beginning of the novel, Roman is at home with his six-year old son Simon. His wife M. is out of the country on a business trip. After he’s put Simon to bed for the night, Roman hears strains of music coming from the bar on the corner of his street. It’s only a block away, within sight of his house. Roman steps out. Fifteen minutes and two quick beers later, he returns home to find the front door of his house open and his son gone.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Roman grapples with the loss of his son and with his guilt for letting it happen. I’m not sure how anyone musters the resources to cope with this kind of tragedy. Roman, an utterly self-absorbed character, is perhaps even less equipped for it than most. The story is told in the first person in spare, clean, evocative prose. The reader gets an inside view of a life, and a mind, unraveling without any histrionics. The effect is fascinating, chilling, and heart-breaking.

A Perfect Night to Go to China is an astonishing, powerful book. I highly, highly recommend it.

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