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book review

Portrait of author Dennis Bock on September 7, 2006.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

In his first two novels, Dennis Bock borrowed drama from history: His award-winning debut, The Ash Garden, followed four characters touched by the bombing of Hiroshima; his follow-up, The Communist's Daughter, recounted the life story of a left-wing physician during the Spanish Civil War and beyond. In Going Home Again, Bock turns his attention away from the sweeping crises of history and toward the smaller internal crises of a single man: Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian expat who, having recently separated from his wife, returns to his hometown of Toronto for some midlife regrouping.

Going Home Again does not look to history for a narrative arc, nor does it seem particularly concerned with looking elsewhere. Instead, the novel offers an account of Charlie's experiences and memories as he moves through a transitional year. He spends time with his troubled brother, Nate; he reflects on his own ailing marriage and daughter; he encounters an ex-lover, Holly, which prompts reminiscences about the mysterious death of their mutual friend, Miles, long ago.

Readers will, of course, follow an interesting consciousness anywhere. But the more minimal a book's plot, the more captivating its narrative voice must be, and in its resistance to plot, Going Home Again shifts an enormous burden onto its narrator: It is his voice and mind, and his voice and mind alone, that must move, engage and provoke us. This is a challenge worthy of Holden Caulfield, and one that Charlie Bellerose can't quite rise to meet.

In his earlier work, Bock has elegantly juxtaposed economical narration with wrenching drama, and it is easy to imagine Charlie as an effective narrator of a different kind of book. For a long while, in fact, Going Home Again hints heavily that it is a different kind of book. Charlie ends the novel where he starts it – with the murder of Kaj Adolffson, a Swedish businessman and the lover of Nate's ex-wife. In between, there are fractional glimpses of an intriguing noirish story: mysterious missing earlobes and fingertips, occasional eruptions of inexplicable violence, suggestions that there may be more to both Charlie's present and his past than what we see on the surface.

In the beginning, Charlie's limitations as a narrator only compound this sense. He is simultaneously incurious and evasive, hazy in his memories of the past (particularly regarding the accidental death of his parents when he was a teenager), given to quickly summarizing moments of potential drama while offering more detailed accounts of the mundane. He is also strikingly possessive of readers' attention; many of the characters in Charlie's orbit bristle with dramatic potential, yet they are kept largely off-stage.

The result is that – with the notable exception of the book's children, who sparkle with authenticity – nobody in Charlie's world feels quite real. This raises the hopeful suspicion that perhaps they aren't: Perhaps Charlie is lying to us, or withholding information from us, and perhaps Going Home Again is a mystery with terms that will eventually become clear. The book's best moments derive from that shadow novel; Bock draws an especially unnerving sketch of Nate's son, Titus, who, in one of the book's most interesting scenes, is accused of molesting another child at a public pool.

As Going Home Again unfolds, however – doubling and then tripling back into past timelines without ever seeming to approach its own beginning – it becomes apparent that no shadow novel is going to emerge. Charlie's journeys in the past and the present really are only tangentially concerned with the dramatic events occurring around him. In the abstract, there is something refreshing about the conceit of an inverted noir, a story in which loud events serve as background for internal ruminations.

But a structure of this sort puts a lot of demands on those ruminations, and with the realization that Charlie is a reliable narrator comes the understanding that he isn't a terribly interesting one. Without the pressures of other characters or the peril of plot, Charlie is left with little to desire beyond, it seems, the desire to chronicle. And though he might have made a fine chronicler of a story set in a war zone, much of what he chronicles here is the simple fact of his own aimlessness (a quality he notices in himself many times).

There are some lovely moments of lyricism and wit along the way: A riddle is a "linguistic parallelogram," a man recounts his sexual conquests in the manner of "a frat boy bragging about the number of goldfish he'd managed to swallow live." But in listening to Charlie's story, readers may find themselves hoping for some deeper complexity in his telling – some hidden agenda, some buried deceit. It is an unsettling sort of disappointment to reach the end of a novel only to find that things really were as simple as they seemed all along.

Jennifer duBois is the author of A Partial History of Lost Causes, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. She was recently recognized by the National Book Association's 5 under 35 program. Her new novel, Cartwheel, will be published this fall.