Tale of Cold War-era espionage finds Sweatman in fine form
IN an atmosphere replete with subterfuge, double-crossing and betrayal, Emmett Jones struggles to be “a good man” for both the sake of his own conscience and in order to protect his wife and daughter. During the Cold War, however, peace of mind is in short supply. Winner of the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (whew), novelist, playwright and singer-lyricist Margaret Sweatman outdoes herself again in scope and skill level in Mr. Jones. The transfixing tale revolves around international espionage and power plays by both the United States and Canadian governments. It soon becomes apparent that in the Cold War era, Canada is far from independent in its decision-making authority, as the American government reigns over Canadian policy-makers. Although Sweatman’s adeptly crafted novel focuses on the period’s political atmosphere, it has an almost allegorical quality, exploring the choices made by one man whose “good intentions” may not result necessarily in positive results. Divided into five parts, the intriguing, atmospheric adventure begins in 1953, at Emmett’s wife Suzanne’s cabin at Blue Sea Lake, Ont., where the couple are entertaining Bill Masters, undersecretary of state at External Affairs, and his old-fashioned wife Ethel. The story travels back in time to to 1946, a period when idealistic 26-yearold war veteran Emmett is in college in Toronto, then forward to 1961, where the cabin’s bomb shelter is stocked with tomato soup, Suzanne’s nail polish remover and a broom to sweep up radioactive dust. All the way through, Sweatman’s pacing and style are outstanding. In Suzanne, Sweatman imagines a complex, somewhat self-destructive, selfinvolved, talented and privileged woman, to whom “thrift (is) not innate.” Often, in her depiction of Suzanne, Sweatman conveys a comically sardonic sense of humour, as she does when delving into Diefenbaker’s character. Emmett’s “confabulations” at the prime minister’s bedside, after the latter has broken his ankle, are almost farcical in nature. Assumed to be innocent of spying on its citizens, the Canadian government’s information-gathering is far from being beyond reproach; citizens are suspected of communist leanings, often with little or no substantive proof. Because of Emmett’s career in international politics and his college friendship with Suzanne’s former lover, John Norfield, Emmett comes under investigation by the RCMP and the FBI; his life, and that of his family, are shaken, perhaps irreparably. Sweatman manages to create a story with suspense, intrigue and sympathetic characters that is well-paced and fascinating enough to hold interest throughout its almost 500 pages. While her novel, on the surface, appears to be about betrayal, suspicion, false identity and the concept of “truth,” it also reveals us all as being inescapably isolated from one other. As Emmett holds Suzanne, it slowly dawns on him that, despite all of our attempts to develop and maintain intimacy with another person, our separateness from one another is impenetrable. Sweatman writes: “As the moment lengthened, she became more solid in his arms, more separate from him. He was too exhausted to do more than marvel, feeling a sort of mild horror, thinking of how separate they really were.” Ultimately, we are alone in this.
Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.