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book review

Andrew Kaufman’s fey stories are whimsical, gentle and reassuringly upbeat.

Toronto novelist Andrew Kaufman was born in Wingham, the same small Ontario town as literary icon Alice Munro. But that's where the similarities end. While Munro's stark social realism has a dark underpinning, Kaufman's stories are whimsical, gentle and reassuringly upbeat.

Kaufman is that very rare bird: the upbeat hipster. Born Weird, his fourth novel, is far too cheery to be CanLit. After reading this giddy and antic novel, I turned to Munro's Too Much Happiness for consolation. It acted as a prose chaser to ground me in my midwinter Prairie reality.

The author's latest offering is a Wes Anderson film yet to be made, with its quirky family premise reminiscent of Anderson's marvellous The Royal Tenenbaums.

Born Weird is the story of five siblings, the Weirds, whose evil grandmother, Annie Weird, has assigned each of them a special power that's both a blessing and a curse. Now that Annie is on her deathbed, she has offered to lift the curses if granddaughter Angie reunites the family for a collective bedside ceremony.

There's a Gothic sensibility lurking in this novel that's a nod to Munro's early country-Gothic stories, such as those in Lives of Girls and Women. There's a crumbling old family mansion where brother Kent still squats, and coincidences, mysteries, disappearing acts, dotty mothers, near-death experiences and improbable plot twists worthy of an 18th-century romance.

Will the Weirds get to Annie's hospital bedside in time to have their curses lifted? And whatever happened to their father, whose red Maserati was pulled out of the lake? These two questions drive the plot of Born Weird.

The pace is brisk, the repartee among the siblings is witty and their curses/challenges are all surmountable. Angie forgives readily. Richard is always safe. Abba is hopeful. Lucy is never lost. Kent can take on anyone in a fight. No one is in jail or just out of rehab.

Even their mother Nicola's mental breakdown is vaguely non-threatening and whimsical. Nicola checked out mentally when their father disappeared (presumed dead). She set up her own hair salon in the broom closet of a Winnipeg nursing home, where she dispenses wisdom and bad haircuts. But there's something suspect about an author who treats tragic topics so lightly.

Kaufman's niche, like Yann Martel's, is allegorical fiction. Kaufman explores the enduring themes of family ties, fealty, love and loyalty in his successful backlist, which includes All My Friends Are Superheroes, The Tiny Wife and The Waterproof Bible.

Kaufman opts for the quirky premise and uses magic realism to reveal how his characters grapple with their fates. It's a bold move in CanLit culture.

Born Weird, in typical romantic fashion, concludes on an upbeat note. Spoiler alert: the siblings relocate to Winnipeg, buy an old house on a tree-lined street and live happily ever after.

This novel rests firmly on a vision of hope and imagination. If you read to be uplifted or entertained, Born Weird is a panacea to treat the curse of a long Canadian winter.

Journalist Patricia Dawn Robertson writes and gardens in Wakaw, Sask.