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book review

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page.

The Cuckoo's Child, by Margaret Thompson, Brindle & Glass, 264 pages, $19.95

Cuckoos are known for, among other things, brood parasitism: They lay their eggs in the nests of other, often smaller birds, who raise the infiltrator as their own. To be a cuckoo's child, then, is to never know your biological parents and, in turn, to lose your own child when the time comes. Such is the double orphaning in Margaret Thompson's new novel. Livvy Alvarsson is in her 40s when she learns via bone-marrow-donor test that she is unrelated to the only family she remembers. The news comes 11 years after her young son went missing, presumably abducted. Novels love a changeling – there's something Dickensian about this story of mistaken identity as well as some of its more eccentric characters. Livvy's journey takes us from bombed-out postwar London to small-town British Columbia to Thatcher's England and back again. The final return is as satisfying a conclusion as one could hope.

The Stonehenge Letters, by Harry Karlinsky, Coach House Books, 264 pages, $17.95

A retired psychiatrist trawls the Nobel Archive searching for why Freud never received one of those famed medals – only to discover another, secret award available only to Nobel Laureates. A clandestine codicil to Alfred Nobel's will established the Stonehenge Prize, awarded to the person who can solve the who, what, when, (from) where, or why of the English monument. That premise sets up a fascinating, highly original novel. According to our narrator the psychiatrist, "It was Freud who stated that there was no better document than the will to reveal the character of its writer." In this telling, Nobel's will develops into a surprisingly expansive book, considering its page count: It's part psychiatric assessment of Nobel, part intellectual biography of the prize, part parlour game. How would you solve Stonehenge if you were Pavlov, Kipling, Roosevelt, or Curie? The Stonehenge Prize is, sadly, fictional, though as the novel's bibliography and notes show, the story is rooted in fact.

Paradise and Elsewhere, by Kathy Page, Biblioasis, 160 pages, $18.95

In one of Paradise and Elsewhere's later stories a woman looks through a window of wartime glass "faulted so that the whole world seem[ed] drunken-strange." The view through the warped and bubbled pane is an apt description for how these stories work: In each we think we know where we are, only to encounter a pop or shift. The intensely familiar and the strikingly odd combine here to form a reading experience similar to that of fable. Indeed, though Paradise is set in modern times, here we cover similar ground as that of Greek myth or Grimm's fairy tales: the invention of birth and death, transformations from one species to another, children potentially eaten, the problem of what to do with travellers and other outsiders. Providing too much detail would spoil the fun, but rest assured these contemporary tales are as insightful as their older counterparts.

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