Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy

I knew I was in for a treat when I opened my copy of the new edition of Barbara Gowdy's 1995 novel Mister Sandman, and saw that the foreword was written by Katherine Dunn, author of the weird and wonderful Geek Love. I wasn't disappointed.

Set in Toronto in the late fifties through the early seventies, Mister Sandman is the story of the Canarys, a most unusual family. Father Gordon works at a publishing house, editing potboilers. He's quiet and deep, and he--like everyone in the novel--has a secret. A very big secret. Mother Doris is an habitual liar ("the truth is just a version" she famously says) who's built a past as an actress and now raises three children. She has a secret, too. Sonja is the eldest of the three girls, and her secret is that the youngest of the three is her daughter. Marcy is the middle girl, smart and aware. And then there's Joan.

The eternally innocent Sonja is seduced--or raped?--by a man we later discover to be extremely important to others in the family. Doris immediately determines that they must go to her great aunt in Vancouver, where Sonja can have the baby and no one will be the wiser. There is never any thought of not keeping the baby and raising her as Doris and Gordon's third daughter.

Joan is lovely: tiny, delicate, and pale, she is physically an eternal child . She doesn't talk or write, but she has the gifts of music and insight. Joan is the literary descendant of Gunter Grass's Oskar, who at the age of three wills himself not to grow any bigger, and of Irving's Lily Berry, who just stops growing; like them, despite her tiny stature she has emotional, spiritual, and intellectual capacities far beyond her apparent years--and far beyond those of everyone around her as well.

Joan is, for most of the book, the secret keeper of the family. All are drawn to her and each feels the need to confide in her. She knows all of the lies and the deceptions, she knows the joys, the pleasures (both conventional and illicit), she knows what everybody wants. In the end, it seems, she knows what they need, too, although they don't know it themselves. And, as almost always happens, the secrets will be told.

Words and language are very important in Mister Sandman. Joan speaks a language of soft clicks and hisses and moos and meows, perfect imitations of the noises she hears around her and mostly intelligible to her family. Sonja hears her mother's declaration that "the truth is just a version" as "the truth is just aversion." The words pour out of Gordon and Doris and Marcy and even the dull Sonja, and Joanie absorbs them all. What she does with them in the end is her gift to her "darlings," her family.

Mister Sandman is magical--dreams are prophetic, transformative, sometimes shared by more than one person. It's tragic, full of betrayal, despair, revelation. It's funny. It's excruciatingly erotic, often at the most awkward of times. Occasionally the novel verges on being cloyingly quirky, but there's always just enough nastiness lurking at the edges to pull it back into the realm of the weird and the wonderful.

What I'm reading now: The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly


Disclosure: In accordance with new FTC guidelines for bloggers I must let you know that I received a free review copy of this title.  My reviews are just that: reviews.  They are not endorsements, nor am I ever compensated for posting my opinion.  I am, however, an Amazon affiliate, which means that if you make a purchase from Amazon after clicking through a link on my site--even if you don't buy a title to which I've linked!--I will receive a small commission.


Rol said...

That sounds intriguing. I loved Geek Love too, so I'll keep an eye out for this - though it appears to be OOP now, so I'll have to hunt down a second hand copy.

bookdout said...

certainly sounds interesting!

Elizabeth said...

I am stopping from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party.

Stop by mine if you like.