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Review: Fiction

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It’s usually a bad idea to link the facts of an author’s life too closely to the fictions that constitute their creative work, but sometimes the connections are too obvious to ignore. David Davidar’s third novel, Ithaca, is such an exception to the rule.

The story of a successful international publisher’s fall from grace, Ithaca is bound to elicit at least a little curiosity from anyone familiar with its author’s recent real-life travails. Davidar is the former president of Penguin Canada (and a founding member of Penguin India), who was forced to resign from the iconic publishing house in 2010 after he was accused of sexual harassment by two former female employees.

So for those who are wondering: No, Ithaca is not a face-saving tell-all posing as a novel – or a poisonous farewell letter to Davidar’s publishing colleagues. At its core, the novel is a touching, at times sentimental paean to the interlocking worlds of writing, publishing and bookselling and the eccentric personalities who slave away in its book-lined corridors.

The novel opens as Zachary Thomas, the Anglo-Indian publisher of Litmus, one of the last big independent publishing houses in Britain, sets off for an uncharacteristic week of rest and relaxation in the isolated kingdom of Bhutan.

Relaxation proves hard to come by, even up in the misty Himalayas. Zach compulsively broods over the problems waiting for him in London, including the ongoing estrangement from his wife, Julia, a stagnant love affair with an unsuitable partner and the recent death of Massimo Seppi, the bestselling author who aided Zach’s rapid rise from associate editor to publisher.

Looming over Zach’s personal anxieties is the spectre of the aptly named Globish Inc., a multinational conglomerate set on buying out Litmus’s partners and transforming the firm into a faceless branch plant beholden to faceless shareholders. That takeover, and the downsizing that will probably strip Zach of his position, seems all but inevitable – unless he can produce another international bestseller within the next two publishing seasons.

Soon, Zach is off to Toronto on a desperate mission to retrieve an unpublished work from Massimo Seppi’s reclusive literary executor while simultaneously trying to save his marriage and career.

Davidar brings decades of insider experience to dramatize a dilemma faced by publishing folk everywhere: how to reconcile their love of books with the profit-driven demands of an industry in perpetual crisis as readers increasingly turn toward digital media and other mass entertainment options.

Like many of his colleagues, Zach remains attached to the notion of literature and storytelling as agents of beauty and meaning in a crass world. In one moving scene, Zach stands in the crowded aisles of the Frankfurt Book Fair and imagines seeing a “river of stories, its headwaters stretching all the way to a time before time, to the beginnings of the human race when the first stories were told to a band of listeners.”

Such moments keep Zach going, as does the thrill of “propelling [a]beautiful work of art into the world,” even if, as he admits, his work duties leave him little time to read books or shepherd them and their authors into the public eye.

Davidar’s undeniable affection for and knowledge of the publishing industry make readers occasionally feel like captive guests to a pedantic host showing off a beloved home or property. This enthusiasm leads him to use such lazy phrases as “study in contrasts” or “palatial apartment” and to refer to characters as “brilliant” or “legends” when clarity would have served him better.

Luckily, Davidar is also not shy about showing readers that behind every prize-winning novel lies a well-beaten trail of infighting, guesswork, compromises and ego games. He should know: He’s been there.

Author and freelance writer James Grainger is the former review editor for Quill & Quire, Canada’s publishing industry monthly.

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