Canada by Richard Ford (review)

canada covers
A selection of the covers produced for Canada – the one I had is far right

Literary fiction is not really my genre, but in straitened circumstances (in France without enough to read) I picked this up, along with some others, in the Belfort Fnac.

Although this 2012 novel features both a bank robbery and a double murder, you can tell it’s not really in the crime genre, because the focus here isn’t on the crimes themselves but on the effect they have on the first-person narrator, Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old boy whose fraternal twin sister has run away to San Francisco while he has been exiled to Canada.

The book takes about half its length (250 pages) to reach Canada, by the way, which it does at the end of Part One, which deals with the lead-up to the bank robbery.

Canada is a quintessentially American novel, because only in the United States does Canada mean what it means in these pages. So it’s rather odd to be a British person sitting in France trying to grasp this meaning. This is a novel about borders and lines, decisions, and appearances. Set in 1960, its action takes place over a very short period of time. Kennedy and Nixon are in an election campaign, but we never quite get to the result of that election, which simply fits into the background, anchoring this novel in a time when the border between Canada and the USA was more porous than it is now, when it was more like, say, the border between France and Germany in the EU: only the font change on the road signs lets you know you’re in another country.

Canada: a place that looks the same as the USA, where the accent is supposedly different, but not much, and where the head of state is a distant queen, seen only in portraits, and where the dollars are a different colour.

Everybody has slightly weird names in the Parsons family. Dell’s parents, Bev (a recently discharged airforce man from Alabama) and Keeva (the Jewish intellectual and disappointed daughter of Polish refugees) somehow end up robbing a bank. Dell tells you this almost immediately, but takes over 250 pages to get to the point, as it were, because (of course) the robbery itself isn’t the point. Dell’s narration takes you forward and then back again, going over the same ground again and again, puzzling things out, and filling in more detail as he goes. There’s a scene in Part Two, in Canada, in which Dell watches a woman called Flo paint a scene: he watches her, dabbing and scrubbing, adding details, making what she originally put onto the canvas look more like the object in the real world that she’s portraying.

“So. Do you like us up here?” Florence glanced at me for a third time to be certain I was noticing her carefully applying paint to the post office. It pleased her, I thought, to be observed painting. “Canadians always want everybody to like it here, And us—especially to like us.” She made a careful little jab at the post office door, then turned her head sideways and looked at it that way. ‘But. When you do like us, we’re suspicious it might be for the wrong reasons. America must be a lot different. I have a feeling nobody much cares down there. I don’t know a lot about it. Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada.”

Dell’s narration is like this: a charcoal outline, and then colour, and then detail, and scrubbing, and shading, and filling in, until the picture becomes more complete. It’s a key passage: doing things for the right reasons, is the centre of the novel.

Dell spends the first half of the story trying to work out just why his mother agreed to rob the bank. He never quite gets there in his mind. He’s clear, after a while, that his father was probably born to it: probably always wanted to do it. But his mother, who wanted to be a poet, who needn’t have gone through with her accidental pregnancy and marriage to a man with whom she shared nothing in common bar their children; his mother is a puzzle.

There’s a puzzle in the novel, too: one of Niagra Falls, up on the border between the USA and Canada, which Bev Parsons works on while he’s waiting for the police to come and arrest him. And just as with Keeva Parsons and her motivation, in the end there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

Dell is whisked away by a friend of the family and dumped up in Canada, in a near ghost town, where he stays for just a few weeks. He’s told us about the robbery: now he tells us about the murders. Meanwhile, his sister, Berner, has run away with the remaining proceeds of the bank job, and goes on to lead a very different kind of life.

Where Berner is active and opinionated, Dell is quiet, passive, and thoughtful. Events happen around him, and he observes, but he rarely becomes an actor in this plot.

Arthur Remlinger is another American in exile in Canada. He’s the dandyish and intellectual proprietor of a rough hotel in the middle of nowhere, frequented by truckers and hunters. Like Dell’s intellectual mother, Remlinger’s a puzzle with a piece missing, and Dell, his mother in jail awaiting trial, transfers his curiosity onto him.

While I was slightly infuriated at first with the glacial pace of this narrative, by the time Dell reached the beginning of his 250-page build-up to the second shocking event of his sixteenth year, I was prepared for it and relaxed into the rhythm of the prose. It’s interesting, food for thought. Literary fiction still isn’t my thing, but if you liked something like The Lovely Bones, you’d probably enjoy this too.

3 responses to “Canada by Richard Ford (review)”

  1. Interesting. I notice what you observe about how Canada gets portrayed. The way you describe Canada’s depiction in this novel seems more like a cipher than a real, huge and diverse country.

    I’d observe leaving the eastern side of USA across into, say, Montreal and thinking I’d somehow suddenly arrived back in a slightly strange version of France with more air-conditioning.

    Slightly further west and the experience does change to be more America-urban like in say Toronto. Dabbling across the border from the USA. I’m guessing that’s where the reference point is for the novel?

    Then, I suppose there’s the vast tracts across the middle which can be used to create the isolation and time for self reflection.


  2. As you might guess from some of the covers above, the Canada of the novel is the Western, empty part, above the similarly empty Montana and North Dakota. Vast fields of wheat. The protagonist stays at first in a shack in an almost completely abandoned settlement, and then in the hotel in a dead-end town, two thousand miles from Detroit.


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