We revere youth for many reasons, but perhaps my favourite among them is the proclivity of the young to believe in magic. Say what you will about their sartorial choices, good magicians traffic in delight, and there is nothing so sweet as our earliest pleasures. Great magicians, like great novelists, trick their audience into seeing the world for what it really is: the place where wonder lives.
Cary Fagan’s tender new novel, A Bird’s Eye, looks like a small book, but do not be deceived. It is impossibly rich, and though I blasted through it on a single subway ride, the pocketable volume grew bigger and bigger as I was reading it, big enough for me to get completely lost inside.
Benjamin Kleeman is a 14-year-old boy coming of age in 1930s Toronto. After sneaking into a vaudeville variety show with his secret girlfriend, Benjamin witnesses his first bit of stage magic. A man is stumbling about, performing drunkenness, patting his pockets to find a cigarette. Fagan puts his reader in the audience, so that we might enjoy firsthand this clown as he finds himself growing alarmed by the infinite cigarettes that appear improbably, magically in his hand. Despite finding the inebriated clowning mawkish, Benjamin is entirely rapt: “Anyone can learn to dance, or tell a joke, but this man broke the laws of nature. He made a tear in the world and put his hand through it.”
The scene happens midway through the book, but the moment marks a beginning. Newly obsessed, Benjamin begins frequenting magic shops and libraries, soaking up knowledge of the manipulative craft any way he can. A Bird’s Eye is full of beginnings, so many in fact that even the very end marks a new one, though not necessarily for Benjamin. The story starts and extends just beyond our protaganist; it folds itself into a larger world.
The book opens in a tiny, superstitious village outside of Naples, with the birth of Benjamin’s mother. Her entry into the world is hardly grand, and her life begins with a figurative slap – born with a hand-shaped port-wine stain on her face, the baby girl grows up with the abjection of the small town and her vituperative father. She becomes a brave, damaged young woman who sails across the world for, yes, a new start in Toronto. And it’s there that she decides, after years of being tormented by her misfortunes, that she would like to meet her end. She boards the ferry for the island and throws herself overboard, hoping to find death. Instead, she finds Benjamin’s father, and together they begin again.
Even before there were tricks and illusions for Benjamin, he fell under a powerful spell. Fagan’s prose is as sweet and brusque as a first kiss when he describes Benjamin falling deeply in love with a 16-year-old girl destined to be a star. Corrine Foster, a black teen with music in her heart, laments the lack of black music in pre-Drizzy Toronto. She dreams of jazz towns: “Where’s your coloured section? Where’s your Cotton Club? It isn’t a big city without Negro people.” Fagan is both graceful and unsparing on the subjects of race and origin. His characters come to the city from all over the world – Corrine from Louisana, Benjamin’s parents from Italy and a family of Jews from Poland. Like in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, the Toronto of A Bird’s Eye is a polyphonic place, with all the narrative ripeness of extra-lingual communication. Fagan conjures up the spectrum of human differences, and the show is breathtaking.
Fagan captures the long days and delight of youth, and having walked so many of the named Toronto streets myself I couldn’t help but experience an extra tickle; the city itself was so much younger then, and it’s as if through Benjamin’s traversing the streets with Corrine, we watch the city growing up along side them. “Give me a city,” Benjamin narrates on the second page, “no matter how infested with con artists and the broken-hearted and obscenely rich.” It’s a sentence – and a sentiment – that blends beautifully the cynicism of age into the clarity of a precocious child. The city then was full of potential, of undiscovered delight, and, caught up in this tale as I hurtled northward through Toronto’s underground, I was overtaken. A Bird’s Eye consumed me like a memory, warm and sweet and sad. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was magic.
Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother magazine.