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'Thinking about herself and the state of her soul, Clara Purdy drove to the bank one hot Friday in July. The other car came from nowhere, speeding through on the yellow, going so fast it was almost safely past when Clara's car caught it. She was pushing on the brake, a ballet move, graceful - pulling back on the wheel with both arms as she rose, her foot standing on the brake - and then a terrible crash, a painful extended rending sound, when the metals met."

  • Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott, Freehand Books, 372 pages, $25.95

So begins Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault. Does any reader need more encouragement than this to pick up a copy of this superior novel - this week long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize - and read it to find out what happens next? Well, some readers might, because Endicott is not nearly as well known as she ought to be, and Freehand Books is the newest Canadian publisher on the block.

Endicott's debut, Open Arms, was short-listed for the in Canada First Novel Award of 2001, but was overshadowed (in the eyes of this jury member) by Michael Redhill's winner, Martin Sloane, and Dennis Bock's runner-up, The Ash Garden. Seven years later, I find myself recalling characters and scenes from Open Arms with greater vividness and involvement than those from the others.

And with far more laughter: Marina Endicott is really funny, a sweet-natured but sharp-eyed and quick-tongued social observer in the Jane Austen-Barbara Pym-Anne Tyler tradition, who can wring love, revulsion and hilarity from readers in a single page. Open Arms is out of print and hard to find, but well worth the search: Among other things, it makes high comedy out of the low morals of those West Coast poets whose cosmic sense of self-entitlement exempts them from loyalty to anything but their own "genius."

The wrong-turn car crash that opens Good to a Fault causes Clara Purdy's solid sense of everyday morality to take wing and soar beyond previous experiences. Until this accident, Clara has been living a small, quiet and affluent life, but is "in a state of mild despair, forty-three and nothing to show for it." Once married, briefly and stupidly, she's spent most of her life working for an insurance company, caring for her sick parents until their recent deaths, gardening, housekeeping, reading books on spirituality and attending her local Anglican church.

The people in the other car - parents, three children, grandmother - come from a very different world. Lorraine and Clayton Gage, together with Darlene and Trevor and baby Pearce and Old Mrs. Pell, Lorraine's mother, are virtually homeless when Clara dreamily bumps into them on a Saskatoon street. They've been drifting from town to town, living in an ancient Dodge Dart utterly junked by the accident, and ailing internally; Lorraine is dying, cancer-ridden with late-stage lymphoma, and Clayton is messed up inside in other ways.

Speaking to her priest after the accident, Clara, a fine and fastidious example of Barbara Pym's "good woman of the parish" at cross-purposes with her conscience, tells Father Paul Tippett that she sees what this family needs but doesn't know if she can do what she thinks ought to be done. More alive to the parable of the Good Samaritan and the teachings of Jesus than this seemingly stony man and his arid sermons, Clara rejects his advice and takes the entire Gage family into her house and starts to share her life with them.

As she does, she finds herself dealing with consequences that include exhaustion, rage, merriment, love and the intense scrutiny of her own motives in offering hospitality to such strangers: Is she acting out of guilt, out of goodness or out of the selfish desire to become a mother without the bother of a partner and pregnancies?

Until her recent success as a short-story writer short-listed for the Journey Prize, and as a poet short-listed in the CBC Literary Awards, Endicott was better known in the Canadian theatre world than the literary one. She's worked as an actor, director and dramaturge, and written three plays, and all of this stage experience pays off in writing that is exceptionally tight and compelling. Good to a Fault has the same kind of relentless, unstoppable expectancy as Barbara Gowdy's Helpless, so it's not surprising that this novel is earning accolades from writers such as Elizabeth Hay, Lyn Coady and Annabel Lyon. What singles out Endicott are the flashes of hard-won wisdom that are like Leonard Cohen's when he's at his most self-deprecating. Or Thomas Merton's. This bit of Merton comes out of the mouth of Clara's Anglican priest: "Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious."

Freehand Books is a new and national publisher of literary works that's decided to establish itself in Calgary rather than Toronto. Endicott's Good to a Fault is one of four books being published simultaneously in its inaugural season. Another, Saleema Nawaz's story collection Mother Superior, gives it a formidable one-two punch on this season's Must Read fiction list.

Contributing reviewer T. F. Rigelhof continues to move forward in writing his survey of the current state of Canadian fiction.