This book may not save your life but it may well put a new twist on how you think about magicians, rabbits, Dr. Spock, family, fire and food, among other things.
This book won Michelle Berry the inaugural Colophon Prize for fiction from its publisher, Enfield & Wizenty. It's a well-executed story that goes from quirky (intriguing off-centre family; blackly funny, even) to murky (unfettered, unrelenting dysfunction and despair, peopled by hard-to-like characters), while keeping the reader wondering what's going to happen next. How much worse can things get?
The story opens with immensely obese (700 pounds) 28-year-old Sylvia Swamp in the back of an ambulance, en route to a veterinary hospital (the only facility with a CT scanner big enough to deal with her heft). As she appreciates a blood clot might be about to kill her, Sylvia considers where to start her life story ("the little lever holding in my thoughts dislodges slightly, lets some of my past in.").
And what a life story it is.
The novel tells of the creation and destruction of the Swamp family from Sylvia's point of view and then again from that of her narcissistic mother, Ruth, her older sister Sadie, and her father, Benjamin.
The chapter headings interpolated are from Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care ("Parents are human. They have needs."), a volume that obsesses Ruth Swamp. This conceit, intriguing at first, I found distracting as the story progressed.
It is pregnant Ruth becoming lover and assistant to a cut-rate magician, Marvellous Marvin, that puts the family under an apparently inescapable, cursed spell. (Says Sylvia: " 'A slapdash magician with brown eyes and only a little charisma,' is what my grandmother called him. 'The only thing he has in his pants is a small rabbit.' ")
Ruth's husband Benjamin seems a passive cuckold, a cipher who watches TV and pays the bills. Elder daughter Sadie blossoms as younger daughter Sylvia balloons. Both girls disappoint their mother. In her teens, Sadie also works for Marvin and shares his bed; the mother-daughter rivalry for the magician's attentions escalates … and then Sylvia reveals the existence of Marvin's wife.
"But part of Ruth has been waiting for this. Hasn't she? Hasn't she always wondered and suspected? When he slips out after a show, claiming he needs time by himself, that he's too tired that night. When he leaves for the weekend, telling Ruth that he is going to Ottawa to perform a private show for an office function, or when he doesn't show up for days and then takes Ruth into his bed and wants only to sleep. Ruth's Marvin has someone else? Who is she?"
After this revelation, things don't blow up and resolve, or even plateau; they spiral down into attempted murder, arson, rape, gluttony and embezzlement, with amoral people prospering at the expense of those so yearning for change, they're bamboozled by the deceit and cynicism that passes for magic.
The story is well-paced (even with the necessary repetition of its Rashomon-style narrative) and the characters are unforgettable, if largely impossible to inhabit with compassion.
Everything clicks into place near the end, when daddy Benjamin clarifies who did what to whom, and who saw what. The wrap-up is both startling and satisfying.
Michelle Berry is a talent; even if this isn't my favourite manifestation of her gifts, her willingness to navigate such challenging darkness is admirable.
Moira Dann is a writer living in Victoria.