Tale of Cold War-era es­pi­onage finds Sweat­man in fine form

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by El­iz­a­beth Hop­kins

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.

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