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book review


  • Title: Crow
  • Author: Amy Spurway
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Goose Lane
  • Pages: 305

Full disclosure: I met the premise of this novel with a groan. Middle-aged woman with brain tumours goes home to her rural Cape Breton community to die? That conjured up a) the sort of earnestly bleak kind of CanLit that feels medicinal or b) a Lifetime movie mash-up of A Walk To Remember and No Great Mischief. It was a toss-up for which option depressed me more. Thankfully, as is often the case, the back-of-the-book blurb proved untrustworthy, in the best possible way. Amy Spurway’s Crow is neither joyless neo-realism nor a pastiched made-for-TV tear-jerker. It is a joy, a delight – and all the better for being entirely unexpected.

This debut comes at you, to use the Cape Breton parlance, like a puck in the teeth. From the first line, it’s a novel that makes demands of its reader. Our narrator, Stacey (Crow) Fortune, comes on strong, a bit like those people who tell you their entire life story within 15 minutes of meeting them. Like the pot of tea forever brewing on her mother Effie’s stove, Crow is a strong flavour: bracing, bold and, at times, bitter with a brassy bite. She’s got a lot to say, and not all of it is strictly about getting us from point A to point B. If philosophical digressions and extended metaphors aren’t for you, well, Crow’s not your girl.

It also demands much of a reader’s tolerance for the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink school of plotting. The book begins with a terminal diagnosis, but that’s just chapter one. Before you’ve even cracked the middle of the spine, Crow tosses into the pot a missing father, an unexpected pregnancy, a shocking death and a healthy serving of some magical realism, and rigorously stirs it with at least two different love triangles. There are multiple characters with supernatural abilities, including a best friend who gets trees to tell her the future. It’s like reading the rompiest of romcoms but with an acerbic tone and eye for the ridiculous that saves it from parody.

Amy Spurway.Alex Pearson

And ridiculous Crow is, but that’s its charm. Spurway is an author who’s comfortable with weird, and the more she leans into that, the better the book gets. She’ll reward the patience the first half requires (there’s a wide cast of characters for us to get to know, from Crow’s stoner high school friend-with-benefits to her gossipy aunt and estranged family on her father’s side) with a back quarter that rattles wildly from one twist to the next, swinging the reader from high to low like the most exuberant of fiddler’s reels. (And speaking of Cape Bretonese details: While I can’t speak to the authenticity, Spurway does a brilliant job of creating a sense of place. I could smell the sea air – and the Javex – taste the funeral hams and squares – and Broc-o-gloop casserole – and hear the singular cadence of these working-class Maritimers.)

It is, of course, not without its weaknesses. The “villain” of this story, Crow’s icy aunt Sarah, stands out as singularly one-dimensional in a group of otherwise vividly drawn players, and can veer on the “twiddles mustache” end of ridiculously evil. Likewise, her satire of nouveau riche Toronto hipsters feels a bit thin, and borrows too heavily from tired stereotypes to be properly skewering. And certainly there are passages of prose that could have done with less – fewer adjectives, fewer turns of phrase, less trying-too-hard “personality.”

But those are minor things, and do nothing to detract from the experience of the book over all. It’s sharp but tender, funny and sweet. It is – and Crow would just hate this – totally heartwarming and (hold the eye-rolls) life affirming.

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