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the daily review, tuesday, july 28

Readers foraging for a substantial and infinitely satisfying work of stunning proportions in which to sink their teeth this take-it-easy season need look no further than Linda Leith's Marrying Hungary , the latest literary foray from the Montreal author of six works, including the critically acclaimed and oft-translated Birds of Passage and The Tragedy Queen.

Here, in an intimate memoir cinematically enlarging the genre, the daughter (born in Northern Ireland to a beautiful mother, Nan, and a tyrannical yet deeply troubled father, Dr. Desmond Leith, who drags his family around the globe) finds herself both reaching back metaphorically (or returning physically) to several of the many places she's resided, from London, Basel and Budapest to Ottawa, Paris and Belfast.

  • Marrying Hungary, by Linda Leith, Signature Editions, 264 pages, $18.95

Eventually, she makes a tentative kind of peace with the fact she cannot live anywhere but Montreal, for reasons to do with her marriage, a trio of sons, academic, aesthetic and intellectual concerns and, most profoundly, with a burgeoning sense of her essential self as both writer and terminal inside-outer, a fate much more optimistic than even she would have believed at the tender age of 18. That's when she met her soon-to-be husband, Hungarian refugee Andy Gollner, her completing half with a past as peripatetic as her own.

Marrying Hungary recounts a compulsively readable tale of an increasingly independent woman living among "foreigners" until she comes to terms with the illusions and realities of self, other, identity, home, family and country, given her history and future, given the elementary truth evidenced in the fact only one city in the world belongs to her as much as she allows herself to belong to it: Montreal.

Her love affair with the city precludes abandonment: "Montreal is human in scale while being a real city, a city big enough to support theatres and orchestras and festivals and good restaurants and all the other things you want to have available to you even when you have no immediate interest in going. It has a sense of its place in the world, and a recognizable personality, diffident and ironic. It's human in its contradictions, its mix of peoples and languages, and in its acknowledgment of people's frailties and of their desire for fun. And it's a French-speaking city. That is not incidental. I love the fact that the city will always remain in some ways foreign to me.

Who marries Hungary? That question, perhaps the central one informing each of the five parts of this astonishingly gentle and remarkably clear-eyed memoir, involves, most keenly, the way in which a marriage works until both partners travel routes so foreign to one another that they cannot find the single one that will eventually bring them together again. Even good marriages fail, Leith suggests, for reasons not even she can wholly and fully articulate. But that cannot be taken as a fault of one or the other party since, of course, everyone knows that no one can fully and wholly express the inevitable attraction that finds two hearts beating as one at the outset of a relationship, either.

In that regard, the book speaks both wisely and well of the experience of marriage; in some ways, its authorial triumph revolves around its creator's ability to neither soap-box nor sop-op the institution. That's laudable. That's vintage Leith.

Comparing most favourably with Doris Lessing's Walking in the Shade, say, Marrying Hungary may well become this summer's sleeper hit. Given its insights, intelligence and open-hearted yet paradoxically discrete perceptions, this page-turning, occasionally heart-churning memoir has more than earned the praise that rightfully ought to see such a designation come its way.

Award-winning poet, cultural critic and literary journalist Judith Fitzgerald is writing Points Elsewhere, a new collection of poetry to be published next year. She also covers poetry for The Globe and Mail's books blog, In Other Words.

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