With the current asking price of gold breaking through the stratosphere, it is natural for attention to be paid to even the slightest fluctuation in the price of this precious metal. Seldom, however, is attention paid to the hard-rock miners who sustain the global gold market. From London to New York to Tokyo, traders ply international bullion exchanges, moving staggering sums through a volatile market, never once pausing to consider who actually hauls this stuff up out of the Earth. This is unfortunate, because, as Mary Lou Dickinson ( One Day It Happens) shows in her second novel, Ile d'Or, there is an awful lot at stake here, too.
If you open Ile d'Or expecting to find the likes of Rita MacNeil and her quaint crew of crooning miners, you will be disappointed. Ile d'Or reads nothing like Cape Breton's Men of the Deeps and its folksy repertoire of mining tales. With a storytelling style that skillfully combines the fragility of the human condition with the rock-hard reality of life in a northern mining town, Dickinson threads together the lives not only of miners and their bosses, but also the larger social fabric of a Quebec mining town on the heels of the province's failed 1980 independence referendum.
As with gold-mining itself, it may appear as though there is nothing of much value on the surface, but page after page, as the reader digs deeper into the novel, he encounters veins of small town angst, infidelities, criminality, simmering racism, classism, the ever-present French-English divide and much more.
Set in the fictional town of Ile d'Or in the Abitibi region of Quebec, home to some of the deepest gold mines in the Western hemisphere, Dickinson's novel digs just as deeply into the lives of its four main characters. Connected since childhood, their ties are both profound and tenuous. After decades of absence, two of the four are returning (separately) to Ile d'Or, while the other two never left. In the course of the novel, all four re-establish old relationships while fostering new ones.
Each in their mid-forties, they find themselves at similar places in their lives, glancing over their shoulders, looking back into their pasts in hopes of charting a course for their future. Since all of them are entering midlife, the issues they face are alike. Divorce and separation are biggies. Lucien Dion, the town pharmacist, discovers his wife has left him only after finding a curtly worded note on the kitchen table that reads, "Feed the dog." Ouch!
Much of the narrative is told through Libby Muir. Still dealing with the residual effects of a failed marriage, she returns to Ile d'Or to, among other things, gain some much-needed headspace from a lover she left behind in Toronto. But Libby finds herself out of the ore car and into the mine shaft. In the process of examining her past, much of it framed by her parent's strained marriage, she discovers a disturbing truth about a boyfriend she left behind in Ile d'Or years before.
From the start, class distinction plays a key role in Dickinson's narrative. Libby is the Anglo daughter of the mine's head engineer. Walter Muir, the mine-boss, essentially operated things from the comfort of an aboveground office. On the other side of the equation is Nick Petranovich. Son of Ukrainian immigrants, Nick's father worked in the mine, underground. This is just one of many divides ruling life in Ile d'Or.
Nick, now a Toronto-based doctor wrestling with unmet artistic interests, makes a memorable entry. To the bewilderment of Michelle Dufresne, an independent businesswoman whose dealings with an abusive partner end only with the death of her tormentor, receives the fright of a lifetime while visiting her family's burial plot. Victim of a premature obituary in the Northern Miner, Nick re-enters her life seeming to have risen from the dead. "You're quite handsome for a dead man," she tells him. Still, as the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Nick has in fact experienced the death of his creative self. His return to Ile d'Or is an attempt to resurrect this deadened part of himself.
Ile d'Or is a small town where everyone knows something about everyone and where the local cabdriver knows everything else. With multiple storylines veining through the novel, Dickinson risks muddling the complex relationships among characters. Masterfully, she maintains clarity for each.
An earth motif runs through Ile d'Or. Both literally and symbolically, objects sink into the earth; men spend hours under the earth; loved ones are buried in the earth; and, most important for the survival of the town, gold is extracted from the earth. As far as placing the novel in northern Quebec, the author could not have chosen a better locale. In the time period the story is set, gold is valued at an all-time high, just as the province is reconsidering its value in relation to the rest of the nation. The symmetry is perfect.
Dickinson's writing style is slow and deliberate. Like the best writers this country produces, nobody rushes Munro, Ondaatje or Gowdy and nobody is going to rush Mary Lou Dickinson. Fortunately, she doesn't write like any of them (okay, maybe a little like Munro), but something like Bonnie Burnard. Both dig deep into the subject of partnerships, relationships, memory (not nostalgia) and ordinary lives.
It's not risking much to state that when the Scotiabank Giller Prize list is announced, Ile d'Or won't be on it. Then again, Ile d'Or doesn't require a shiny gold decal on its cover to indicate that this book is a winner.
Edward Brown is the Journey Prize-nominated author of Playing Basra.