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the daily review, mon., april 2

Kyo Maclear

Kyo Maclear's second novel, Stray Love, explores themes established in her Amazon First Novel Award-nominated The Letter Opener: Both books explore ethnicity and identity, and feature characters who feel those fundamental elements ill-mixed. In Stray Love, Maclear expands by going international and travelling through time. She also contracts by drawing elements from her own life as the daughter of a war reporter and a visual artist.

Stray Love is written from the point of view of middle-aged Marcel, an artist living in London. Kiyomi, his first love, now-friend and a single mother, experiences a family health crisis and Marcel agrees temporarily to take in Kiyomi's only daughter, adolescent Iris. The arrival of Iris ignites flashbacks for Marcel: to his own mixed-race, orphaned birth in a country between wars; to his evasive but loyal adoptive father, Oliver, a foreign correspondent; and to being handed off by Oliver to his sometime girlfriend, the alluring Pippa, an emblem of London's swinging '60s.

Frequent shifts between past and present destabilize the pacing and narrative. This non-linear approach has events happen in isolation and out of order, so the story is diminished into episodes. Philosopher Galen Strawson describes narrative not only in terms of plotting, but as a mechanism we use to establish the "long-term continuity" necessary to be "considered as a whole human being." For these strays with broken roots, that internal sense of continuity is precisely what's missing, so the novel's form is a direct outcome of the way the characters navigate the world. While many readers will relate to this perspective, others are bound to find it myopic.

Both the era and atmosphere of Stray Love share notes with master novelist Haruki Murakami's coming-of-age novel, Norwegian Wood. Maclear's novel also appears to make allusions in nomenclature to Dickens – and certain comparisons do lend themselves, as the book is populated by Dickens-like London-based preteens from broken homes who long for normality, who are acutely status-conscious and who encounter unexpected benefactors.

What bonds these characters is not blood but the shared experience of searching for a unifying narrative thread. This means that apparent character under-development could be defended as intentional. But the dilemma is not that the characters are in flux; it's that there is not enough variety. Each generation of females is magnetic, open, artistic, full of sass. The successive males are all repressed, distant and ambivalent. These are gendered roles we've simply seen play out elsewhere.

The scenes are well-painted, particularly those at various English schools or in Vietnam. Stray Love occasionally exceeds its reach in trying to macramé the characters and the zeitgeist. In one reflection, Oliver is in a phase of capitulation between outbursts of anger and indulgent demands. Of this, Marcel unconvincingly muses, "I understand now that colonialism was coming to a crashing end and Oliver was experiencing pangs of white oppressor's guilt." There are a few Forrest Gumpian moments, such as when young Marcel witnesses that iconic Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Vietnam.

Stray Love is a work torn between being non-linear and episodic, or heavily plotted and all sign-of-the-times. It would have benefited from choosing sides. But Maclear should be commended for her ambition in writing a sprawling book about three generations of a multiethnic blended family, spanning at least as many continents and covering more than half a century. The spectrum of these characters's experiences will likely resonate with a wide cross-section of Canadians. Like Maclear's strays, we are always expanding and contracting, ebbing between bearing witness and being creators of our own destinies.

Stevie Howell is a Toronto writer and editor.