THE PER­ILS OF GO­ING BACK IN TIME

Vancouver Sun - - Weekend Review - BY LY L E N E F F

Rain Be­fore Morn­ing, the po­lite and well­con­structed de­but novel from David Suzuki’s videog ra­pher, is a wor­thy ef­fort, as you might ex­pect. As you might fear, it’s also a bit dull.

It’s a homefront-and-trenches tale of Bri­tish Columbia’s tu­mul­tuous Great War. At its best, it’s as ab­sorb­ing as a de­cent Na­ture of Things episode. (Poole, who is 70, has di­rected a num­ber of them in his time.) But as a novel, it’s a lump of por­ridge. The con­ven­tions of the mod­ern en­viro-doc­u­men­tary — earnest­ness, lec­ture dis­guised as nar­ra­tive, a cer­tain tone of brow-fur­row­ing — are un­suited to good fiction.

“I tell you,” one char­ac­ter har­rumphs, “… this war has driven a wedge right through the heart of the com­mu­nity.” This is sup­posed to be the pas­sion­ate ut­ter­ance of a hard-bit­ten small-town fish­er­man, circa 1917.

Retro­fit­ted 21st-cen­tury no­tions are a poor fit for Ed­war­dian char­ac­ters in good his­tor­i­cal f ic­tion, too. But Poole takes Leah and Nathan, his star-crossed rural-B.C. lovers of 1911, and puts them on an up-to-date, good-foryou diet of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, paci­fism and fem­i­nism.

“Or­chids … look too much like fe­male gen­i­talia. Don’t you agree, Nathan?” a con­sump­tive bo­hemian lady painter in the pi­o­neer town of Silva Land­ing asks our teen hero early on. Nathan’s blush­ing re­sponse to this sally isn’t anachro­nis­tic, but the lady’s sprightly vag­ina mono­logue sure is. The glar­ing moder­nity of their pol­i­tics and di­alects aside, Poole’s char­ac­ters of­ten sound like con­stituency news­let­ters.

Given Poole’s pre­vi­ous weed-farm­ing suc­cess (at the end of his charm­ing 1998 mem­oir, Ro­manc­ing Mary Jane: A Year in the Life of a Failed Mar­i­juana Grower, he was un­mur­dered and unim­pris­oned), it seems odd he should have a wooden ear for hu­man talk. At one point, one char­ac­ter asks an­other, “Surely you’d con­cede that there is a spirit of mil­i­tarism here that en­dan­gers all na­tions?”

It’s re­gret­table. All the in­gre­di­ents of a good his­tor­i­cal novel — thwarted love, vast so­cial change, wilder­nesses yet un­tamed — are present in Rain Be­fore Morn­ing. As a plotter, Poole is never less than pro­fes­sional and cooks ev­ery­thing up in the right or­der here.

Af­ter a wilder­ness idyll up the Inside Pas­sage, his ado­les­cent meant-to-be lovers are forcibly sep­a­rated in the first third of the book.

In the sec­ond, poor-but-prin­ci­pled Nathan labours hero­ically through the mythic age of Cana­dian lum­ber­ing while Leah nurses the Do­min­ion’s dy­ing and mu­ti­lated in France.

Their third-act re­union segues into a tale of de­sert­ers and so­cial­ists rem­i­nis­cent of the Ginger Good­win leg­end and is ap­pro­pri­ately tragedy-haunted.

The novel’s best parts de­pict the deathde­fy­ing, back-break­ing world of old-time lum­ber­jacks. The fer­vent good writ­ing Poole brings to this realm of high rig­gers, gyppo shows and icy booms shows he has a ro­man­tic at­tach­ment to it.

This is com­mon among B.C. writ­ers, even those with a con­ser­va­tion­ist bent. Rec­on­cil­ing log­ging’s bru­tal drama with the urge to keep wilder­ness wild is a cru­cial ten­sion in our prov­ince’s lit­er­a­ture, but Poole isn’t the writer to square that cir­cle. When his nar­ra­tive strays from tree-cut­ting, it feels pious and medic­i­nal.

To be clear, it’s not Rain Be­fore Morn­ing’s un-Ed­war­dian pol­i­tics, as such, that sabotage it. Fine writ­ers like Anne-Marie MacDon­ald and David Adams Richards can en­code quite con­tem­po­rary con­cerns into their pow­er­ful his­tor­i­cal nov­els.

But “en­code” is the oper­a­tive word. Sadly, the ideas and con­ver­sa­tions in Rain Be­fore Morn­ing are more like text from a po­lit­i­cal pam­phlet: ex­pected, ob­vi­ous, for­get­table, un­nec­es­sary to read.

Van­cou­ver poet Lyle Neff last wrote about David Lee’s Chain­saws: A His­tory.

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