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There's a fine line between family mysteries and family misunderstandings. As a general rule, the latter makes for less compelling reading than the former, but if the former can be disguised as the latter for as long as possible, the reader will not mind the difference. This is the sleight of hand that Seneca College (Toronto) English teacher Jamie Zeppa has tried to pull off in her first novel, which explores three generations of a Canadian family in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. And for the most part, she has done it very well.

The book begins with childhood, but even though we get to see characters grow up and grow old, it's not your typical Bildungsroman. And though Zeppa does childhood exceedingly well, she does adolescence, adulthood and old age well too. The full spectrum of the human experience is spread out for us in an unpretentious and thoroughly convincing way.

I also admire the simplicity of her writing, which avoids all forms of the dreaded dancin'-on-the-page syndrome and gets straight to the point. Purple prose and overwrought metaphors are not Zeppa's style. At one point, she describes an armchair by saying that it looked "ready to snap shut, trapping whoever was sitting in it." In context, this not only makes perfect sense, but fills you with the same dread her character is feeling. All her characters are similarly sympathetic, even the bastardy, bitchy ones. You understand why they are the way they are, and if you choose, you can even take their side. This is not moral relativism; this is the world, where nothing is clear-cut or black and white, no matter what conservative types would have us believe.

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My few quibbles involve a couple of scenes where one character, in an excess of good humour, behaves in a way that is more appropriate to a cheesy sitcom than the pages of a novel. I can think of nothing more boring than reading about happy people. Luckily, Zeppa seems to anticipate this, and doesn't torture us for long.

Zeppa shows off other literary chops as well. The secret to writing good historical fiction is simple: Make us feel as if the past is the present. Easier said than done, but a skilled author makes it look effortless. Zeppa takes us from the Depression to the late 1970s as smoothly as if we were on a guided tour in a time machine. Rather than sprinkle the story with lots of contemporary allusions and clever hints to remind us it's 1942 or 1976, she focuses on her characters and their lives in the context of the times. It works, and it even feels original.

The publishers seem to have been hedging their bets by describing this as crossover literary/commercial fiction, perhaps on the off chance that some snarky reviewer decided to make fun of the fact that Zeppa writes about people and their feelings, rather than more grandiose themes. I have yet to figure out what "literary fiction" really means, but I know it when I see it, and this is it. But the beauty of this book is that it really is a crossover. Those who are looking for a simple, moving story will find it, but those who care to spend the time digging beneath the surface will be amply rewarded. Jamie Zeppa spent a long time working hard on a very good book. I will be eager to see what she does next.

Novelist William Kowalski lives in Nova Scotia, where he stares at the ocean and ponders the meaning of literary fiction.

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