In the beginning there was only darkness and heavy rain," begins Mark Sinnett's new novel, The Carnivore. It is a suitably dark sentence to open a dark tale about a dark night in Toronto.
Hurricane Hazel hit the city in 1954. The winds went up to 110 kilometres an hour, the Humber River burst its banks, bridges and streets were washed out and entire houses were swept into Lake Ontario. Eighty-one people died and many more were injured or left homeless. The hurricane, often referred to as Canada's storm of the century, serves as the turbulent backdrop for this story about a fractured marriage.
It is 2004 and Ray Townes, a policeman, is dying of late-stage emphysema. With weeks to live, he thinks back to when Hurricane Hazel hit, the night he became a hero. Sightings of him rescuing a dog, saving a woman and coming to the aid of stranded families, along with a prominent photo in the paper, cemented his reputation.
But privately, Ray remembers that night in a very different way. His wife, Mary, a nurse who worked in the emergency ward, also gives her side of the events surrounding the storm. The hospital was overrun and she worked a tireless shift. Of all the patients she treated, one woman sticks in her mind. The patient is brought to the hospital, hypothermic and unconscious, after being plucked from the river. Through her, Mary uncovers the secrets of what really happened that night.
This book has an interesting structure. Ray and Mary tell their sides of the story in short, alternating chapters. While Ray recounts much of the page-turning action the night of the hurricane, Mary fills in more of the events around the storm. Much of the satisfaction from reading the book comes from comparing the two versions of the same story.
Sinnett keeps the pages turning with many twists and turns, while peppering the text with nice turns of phrase
Both Ray and Mary tell of the time they bumped into each other at the CNE grounds, for example, just before the storm struck. Mary first sees Ray standing in the crowd, "as if he had been made of gold." In the next chapter, Ray tells of his panic when he saw Mary. He had just left his lover and felt paranoid, "as if when I looked into her eyes, Mary could see Alice's face." Through these dislocated perspectives, the author reveals the truth about Ray and shows the impact of the events of the night on the couple.
Jumping back and forth between Ray's and Mary's sides of the story is an effective way to show how the Townes' torn relationship has come to be. However, it also puts the reader in an awkward position, like being seated between a dysfunctional couple at a table. As soon as the wife starts her story, the husband taps your shoulder to tell his side. In such a situation, one can end up focusing more attention on managing the back-and-forth than on the conversation itself.
Similarly, when reading The Carnivore, the back-and-forth has a tendency to bring the structure of the narrative to the fore, rather than leaving the reader submerged in the story. While some will appreciate the unique point of view gained from this, others may find it a distraction.
Sinnett keeps the pages turning with many twists and turns, while peppering the text with nice turns of phrase. The bickering couple, for example, are described as "talking at awkward, sharp angles." This skillful combination of plot and prose is expected. Sinnett's previous novel, The Border Guards, was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis crime-writing award. He is also the author of a book of short stories and two poetry collections, one the winner of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
The novel feels timely. The Carnivore brings us a reminder that devastation from a hurricane is not the sole domain of New Orleans. It can happen closer to home. Sinnett uses the storm to explore the impact of a disaster with a focus on the aftermath. When the rivers recede, the rains dry up and the debris is cleared from the streets, life continues. What remains is the memory. And it is the memories that shape our idea of what happened. Ray and Mary's relationship may survive the hurricane, but the memory of it changes them forever.
While it feels current, The Carnivore also takes you back. Sinnett's meticulous research captures what the sights, sounds and smells of 1954 Toronto might have been like. Nice touches, like Marilyn Bell's heroic swim across Lake Ontario, the squeal of streetcar wheels and the worn steps of the Royal Ontario Museum bring a lost Toronto back to life. Just before the storm, Ray has a chance meeting with Pierre Berton: "My wife … reads me everything you write." Berton, surprised to be recognized, answers, "You poor man."
This book is for those who want thoughtful prose and fallible characters with their plot. The story will evoke strong memories of Hurricane Hazel. If you are too young for that, the description of the old Simpson's department store will bring back the sensation of pushing through the heavy revolving doors at the entry. Still too young? A reader of any age will find lots of action in The Carnivore on which to gnaw.
Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award.
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