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The Daily Review, Wed., Dec. 1

An anthropologist in a box Add to ...

Craig Davidson's fourth book, Sarah Court, is published by Toronto's ChiZine Publications, an independent publisher of "surreal, subtle, disturbing dark fiction." The novel is being marketed as Dark Literary Fiction/Science Fiction, but even though a strange alien/demon life is being grown in a magician's box throughout the novel, you can easily read this book as any genre.

In fact, don't even read it as a novel if you want. Read it as a connected collection of stories instead. Sarah Court subverts all expectation and plows through labels. It's an endlessly interesting experiment - it is both literary and Gothic, it is both story and novel, and the writing is equally fragmented and fluid.

"How deeply do any of us know our own selves?" asks the guilt-ridden father of a female power-lifter. "Ask yourself. We hold a picture of how we wish to be and pray it goes forever unchallenged. Passing through life never pursuing aspects of our natures with which we'd rather not reckon. Dying strangers to ourselves."

Sarah Court, a subdivision 20 minutes north of Niagara Falls, Ont., is the habitat of a cast of dysfunctional characters and plenty of squirrels. These characters are connected in small or large ways - sometimes just passing each other on the street, sometimes sharing a beer - but they never really get to know each other.

Among the characters living on Sarah Court there is the father of a daredevil who goes over the falls in a barrel, a shoplifter who steals a baby she rescued from a Wal-Mart toilet, an Internet-stalked young boy who thinks he is a vampire, an autistic man who sees colourful halos surrounding people and a gun-toting woman who takes in disturbed foster children.

Each character has a story to tell, and as their stories build, Davidson layers them until the street is a microcosm of the world. Davidson works back and forth with time and situation, placing these characters together and apart throughout their lives. He stacks each chapter onto the next until they are connected to what we've read before and what we will soon be reading.

At one point almost all the characters are in the same place at the same time - a local bar - even if they aren't there together. Davidson gives us first-person insights into each character. He shows us how their past lives on Sarah Court have supplied them with a permanent attachment to the other characters on the street. Even if they've moved away, they can never fully leave.

Davidson's writing is raw. One of his previous books, Rust and Bone, was compared to Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, and I see a direct connection between Sarah Court and Derek McCormack's carnivalesque work, especially The Haunted Hillbilly.

It's a minimalist style - every word counts - more stage direction than narrative: "I wait in the taxi while Starling speaks to a man across the road. He leaves the man standing beside the river and rejoins me. Our cab veers upriver to Chippewa. A harvest moon slit edgewise by an isolated cloud. The road bends past Marineland." Jerky, stomping, visual writing that says so much so quickly.

The only weakness in this novel may be the alien/demon thing growing inside the magician's box. A "thing" made of human organs (or perhaps all alien? It's never quite clear) that seems to narrate the prologue and the epilogue.

This "thing" finally sums up the human race and considers us lacking: "More often than not I think you carbon-based scraps of interstellar waste are not sustainable as a species," it states.

But this alien is not present throughout the bulk of the novel and so, please, readers who think they don't enjoy science fiction, read this book anyway. The insights Davidson gives us into the dark conditions of being human, of being neighbours, are well worth it.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short-story collections, including the recently published, I Still Don't Even Know You. Her fourth novel, This Book Will Not Save Your Life, was just published.

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