Murther and Walking Spirits, by Robertson Davies

murther-walking-spirits-by-robertson-daviesGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Viking
Published: 1991
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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This is a frame story; journalist Connor Gilmartin, having been unceremoniously murdered by his wife’s lover, sits incorporeal next to his murderer at the Toronto Film Festival, watching from the afterlife as a filmic representation of the lives of his forebears is presented to him. The drama-documentary is in Davies’ typical style, with his broad sweep across generations — more so than usual as he can invent dramatic points of view without restriction.

The story of Gil’s ancestors is one of struggle and hardship — a history of Canadian settlers. But what do we learn from this? We see what it’s like for the prior generations, but there’s little sense of an overall plot. It’s a kind of fictional multi-memoir. Davies’ writing style is a joy to indulge in, but the detachment that the ‘frame device’ inevitably brings gives the memoir a dispassionate slant — reinforced by the narrator’s continual references to his own spiritual state.

It’s a strange book — involving and superbly written, but at the end curiously unsatisfying — as if it was leading up to something that never quite occurs. It lacks the detailed characterization and sheer power of some of Davies’ other work — the Cornish trilogy, for example. What we actually get in Murther is a resolution of sorts, but not of the ‘history’. The narrator seeks a kind of peace; the reader waits for a climax to the book, and ends up with something else.

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