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Stay: An impressive first novel full of Gaelic riches

Aislinn Hunter

It's the old chicken-or-egg scenario -- is the University of British Columbia master of fine arts in creative writing program spitting out great writers because they had to be great in order to get accepted there in the first place? Or are they all fairly normal writers made amazing because of what they learned in the program? Which came first?

I know, does it really matter? It doesn't to me. As long as there are remarkable books coming out of somewhere, anywhere, I'm okay with it. It is eerie, though -- Annabel Lyon, Lynn Coady, Eden Robinson, Nancy Lee, Adam Schroeder, Kevin Patterson, Rick Maddocks and now Aislinn Hunter.

Hunter's first novel, Stay, is ambitious. In it, she tackles the theme of time and all its implications -- ever-changing and moving, elastic and stiff. She plunges us through history to the present and back again with ease. Although this is her first novel, last year Hunter published a book of short fiction (What's Left Us and Other Stories) and a book of poetry (Into the Early Hours), both of which were nominated for several awards, the poetry book winning the Gerald Lampert Award in 2002. She has been called a "genuine ambidexter, equally gifted in fiction and poetry." And now, if I can add to that, in the novel form as well.

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Stay revolves around Dermot Fay, an aging Irish ex-university professor (dismissed many years ago for having an affair with a student, which led to a child, a boy he has never seen), and Abbey, a young Canadian who has come to Ireland to escape the ghost of her mentally abusive, recently deceased father. Abbey and Dermot fall in love, and we see the ill-fated but quietly beautiful relationship both break and mend.

This all takes place in a little coastal town where the cast of characters surrounding Dermot's life -- at the pub, the church, an Irish wake, during the filming of a Gaelic soap opera, at bonfires on the beach, at an exorcism -- make up a wonderfully humorous and tender backdrop to the story. Weaving its way throughout the love story is the amazing discovery and excavation of the body of an ancient woman from a peat-bog turned construction site.

In Stay, Hunter shows us the passage of time and its often less noted qualities -- malleability, flexibility and forgiveness. The small Irish town is growing bigger. "In Spiddal, things are being torn down and built up in equal measure," and through the novel we see many indications of this -- bungalows being built for the tourists beside Dermot's house, a TV series being filmed in the small town. But we are also made aware that it is all right for things to change as long as we work to keep the past alive. Hunter reveals this with the careful excavation of the bog-woman, the popularity of the Gaelic-language soap opera and the fondness of the townspeople for their neighbours at a wake.

Accepting both the past and the present are also what Dermot and Abbey are working on, alone and together: Dermot in whether he should meet his now-grown son and get on with his life, Abbey in facing the demons she left behind in Canada and then letting them go. There is the sense here that all history must be kept tight and close, but that you should not mire yourself in it (get bogged down in it). "And so it was," one character says. And that about sums it up.

For all the complexity in Hunter's rich book -- the compounding of character, narrative, history and an arching, multi-layered plot -- there is also a certain quietness and simplicity to the prose, a minute attention to detail and an elegance in the natural dialogue. Hunter heaps ideas on you, ideas you want to stop and think about, in such a subtle, tender way that you never feel assaulted, but rather protected.

Michelle Berry's second novel, Blur, was recently published. With Natalee Caple, she is co-editor of The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers .

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