When they deal with events set in the recent past, historical novels can be difficult vehicles to drive. On one hand, a historical novel has to have an internally consistent, compelling narrative that takes the reader somewhere new within familiar territory. On the other hand, the narrative can’t transgress real boundaries – you can’t alter the outcome of the World War One, for example.
The Eye of the Day, Canadian writer Dennison Smith’s second novel, avoids any such transgression by simply ignoring the tricky details of the deadliest conflict in human history. The Second World War functions, in Day, as a relatively uncomplicated factory for emotional drama. This has been done elsewhere quite successfully, of course, in novels like 2008’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – but Guernsey has a sense of humour.
Aubrey, the sole offspring of a privileged Ivy-league family, seems to be constantly witnessing tragedies, and he quickly morphs from a lonely child into the 1940s version of today’s anodyne hipster. His only friend is the family handyman, Amos, a strong, silent giant who becomes an outcast after an explosion throws a railway rivet through his jaw. Circumstance conspires to separate the two until coincidence reunites them at the Italian front, picturesquely littered with broken villas and severed limbs (“Parts of men were everywhere. He’d mistaken them for flowers and stones”).
Historical figures pepper the novel: a glorious Greta Garbo makes a cameo appearance, along with an entertainingly sinister Irénée DuPont. But while Dennison brings us within spitting distance of Einstein and even Hitler, the former is only treated as a handy name to drop in nostalgic letters, and the latter as a boorish dinner-party host. Dennison presupposes enough historical savoir-faire on the part of her readers to help them make sense of any ominous overtones – passing references to camps and Jews before the war, for example, and vague mentions of camps and Jews after the war. “A lot of people said that Hitler was going to do what he’s done,” says Aubrey – and that’s about as specific as Day gets.
Self-consciously cinematic, the plot flirts with the dangerous and the violent, maximizing its visual power but never sinking into the muck and mire. Not that detail is always necessary, but this novel feels, at times, like it could be set in any war, so long as its protagonist could come out of the conflict attractively damaged and world-weary.
Paradoxically, this is the point at which Day begins to succeed – when its potpourri of clichés subsides into something starker. Stripped of any company but his own, and armed with a camera, Aubrey stops trying to feel, and starts to see:
“He climbed farther up Barr Hill. Over siliceous marble, phylite, quartzite, white mica, black mottled slate, his feet on lichen and fern, liverworts and hornworts, maple and oak root, walking over pollen cones and ovulate cones, over oak bark that a stud deer had skimmed with its antlers and birch bark that the children had peeled off for paper.”
When Day stops trying so hard to emote it has an odd, slanting elegance. Dennison doesn’t need a cumbersome war narrative to make us believe in her characters’ melancholy.