Com­ing-of-age story avoids hack­neyed themes

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

FOR a story about magic and es­cap­ing re­al­ity, pro­lific Cana­dian author Cary Fa­gan’s slen­der new novel re­mains stub­bornly set in re­al­ity.

It flirts with the idea of let­ting the char­ac­ters for­get their harsh sur­round­ings, yet some­how al­ways seems to find a way to bring sober re­al­ity crash­ing down on them, with­out com­ing off as de­press­ing.

A Bird’s Eye re­volves around, and is nar­rated by, Ben­jamin Klee­man, a 14-year-old who grows up in a Jewish house­hold in 1930s Toronto. While it may seem like a story that should re­volve around tribal iden­tity and per­haps anti-Semitism, Fa­gan stays away from those hack­neyed themes.

In­stead, Fa­gan tells of Ben­jamin’s es­cape from his dys­func­tional par­ents and fam­ily mem­bers and the Great De­pres­sion that is tak­ing hold in Toronto.

Fa­gan is well-suited to writ­ing about ado­les­cence, in that he has pub­lished a dozen chil­dren’s books. But he has also writ­ten five adult nov­els. His most re­cent, Valen­tine’s Fall, won the 2010 Toronto Book Award.

In many ways, the reader can imag­ine A Bird’s Eye as an adult ver­sion of the re­cent Martin Scors­ese film Hugo, with more sex and poverty. Even me­chan­i­cal crea­tures have their part to play in both sto­ries.

Ben­jamin’s es­cape hap­pens through his dis­cov­ery of magic. Not fan­tasy magic, where wands solve all prob­lems for­ever, but stage magic, where card tricks and dis­ap­pear­ing doves make peo­ple for­get their prob­lems for a while.

Ben­jamin’s dis­cov­ery of magic hap­pens halfway into the story. Fa­gan spends a long time ex­plor­ing all the things Ben­jamin tries to es­cape first.

He de­scribes in de­tail how Ben­jamin’s par­ents met, how his fa­ther ends up as the list­less husk he is now, and how his mother be­comes a bit­ter, yet en­er­getic, woman who re­grets her past mis­takes.

Fa­gan’s style of writ­ing is sim­ple, clean and hon­est. He de­scribes, in un­flinch­ing terms, ev­ery­thing from the poverty that in­hab­its Toronto streets to Ben­jamin’s first awkward sex­ual en­counter.

His char­ac­ters, though Fa­gan doesn’t give them much room to be de­vel­oped, are multi-di­men­sional and in­ter­est­ing. Though each char­ac­ter’s pri­mary drive is ob­vi­ous, they still man­age to sur­prise with their oc­ca­sional de­ci­sions.

Ul­ti­mately A Bird’s Eye can’t seem to de­cide if it wants to let good things hap­pen to good peo­ple. Ben­jamin’s story starts off as de­press­ing but gets hap­pier and hap­pier as he dis­cov­ers his tal­ent for il­lu­sions.

More and more things seem to be go­ing right for him, and the magic that lets his au­di­ence for­get about their worries seems to be do­ing the same for him. With­out spoil­ing any­thing, the end­ing re­mains stub­bornly am­bigu­ous as to whether ev­ery­thing ends up all right for Ben­jamin.

If A Bird’s Eye were an il­lu­sion, it would be like mak­ing the dove dis­ap­pear, and then not let­ting it reap­pear, leav­ing the au­di­ence guess­ing.

But that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. Fa­gan’s writ­ing style, cou­pled with his fa­mil­iar yet re­fresh­ing char­ac­ters, makes the novel one where the pages get turned faster and faster as the reader gets more in­ter­ested in what hap­pens next.

If the end­ing leaves the reader un­sat­is­fied, it is only be­cause the story is so com­pelling that it begs for a per­fect con­clu­sion.

Mag­i­cal yet re­al­is­tic, A Bird’s Eye is an easy read for an af­ter­noon where the world can be for­got­ten for a few short hours, much like one of Ben­jamin’s il­lu­sions.

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