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Beautiful and disturbing

You need a bit of patience to get into this book, Ford’s slow paced writing takes some getting used to, but do persist, it is a brilliant read. Canada is a profoundly moving and disturbing story about growing-up, deceit and survival, written by one of the giants of American contemporary literature, the Pulitzer Prize winning Richard Ford.

Dell, the narrator, a retired English teacher, looks back on his nomadic childhood and dysfunctional family consisting of his father Bev, a retired US air force employee, his mother, Neeva, a teacher and his twin sister Berner. Neeva and Bev, an unhappy, mismatched couple, live parallel lives until the day they decide to rob a bank. Bev’s debts, accumulated through illegal trading of meat, need to be repaid and robbery, they decide, is the only solution.

A few days following the robbery, Neeva and Bev are led away in handcuffs, leaving behind their stunned and confused fifteen-year old twins. Fearing the social services will send them to an orphanage, Neeva asks her friend Mildred Remlinger to find a foster home. Berner runs away so Dell is sent to Canada on his own to live with Mildred’s brother Arthur. But Arthur is a fugitive, on the run from the American police, and probably not the ideal foster parent. Life in Canada turns out not to be the new beginning Dell had hoped for and soon the orphanage is starting to look like the better option.

Dell, an intelligent but naïve fifteen-year old struggles to understand his cold and aloof mother and charismatic but insincere father, and, indeed, adults in general who pretty much without exception deceive, fail or abuse him, one way or another. His directness is never returned and he is left increasingly confused and disappointed in his dealings with adults.

In Dell’s world, nothing is as it seems. Yet, he soldiers on and somehow magically manages to distance himself from everything that happens to him, an ability that saves him in the end. Berner, the street smart of the two of them, initially seems to be better equipped to handle the situation, but the emotional scars from growing up are just to deep to heal.

I hadn’t heard the term ‘Dirty Realism’ before I came across Richard Ford’s writing, but it succinctly sums up Canada and its atmosphere.

Dirty realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.

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Richard Ford’s vast landscapes and desolate North-American towns work as effective backdrops to Dell’s life, devoid of framework and predictability. Dell’s obsession with chess mirrors his own existence in which he himself is no more that a chess piece, moved around by cynical, irresponsible adults. Canada is beautifully written with an intense atmosphere and despite its depressing theme has brilliant moments of optimism and moving revelations of human resilience.

Canada by Richard Ford published by Bloomsbury, 529 pages.