Matthew Hooton, Deloume Road

Matthew Hooton's novel Deloume Road is a classic work of Canadian literature; it reads like a late-career work by an accomplished Canadian novelist, and it both deserved on publication, and continues now to deserve, all kinds of praise. (No, don't ask which novelist. I just mean that it's terribly polished work.)

Mind you, I'm not sure I knew that classic CanLit novels were still being written, at least not in as pitch-perfect a version as this.

Admittedly I still somehow haven't read Joseph Boyden (though I'll now have to surrender my union card), or lots of other writers from outside Western Canada, but if the blurb hadn't mentioned the Gulf War, and if I hadn't done the math for the Korean War veteran's approximate age, I would have thought this was set in the 50s or earlier -- and maybe written in the 70s. That's a good thing, definitely, but also of course ... not so much a good thing. Or maybe too much of a good thing? Either way, while I was actively reading Deloume Road, I liked it a lot, but when I didn't have the covers open, I wasn't excited to open them again.

Now, my responses are likely to be atypical, but I've never pretended I write disinterestedly on this blog. Let's think about three elements that I think are keeping me from getting too into it.

First, autism: special needs generally, but I think it's autism that Hooton portrays. When your child has some special needs, you get sensitive to the representation of children with special needs. My daughter doesn't have autism, and there's really no infallible window into the thinking and feeling of a child with autism, so why did I squirm so much about Andy? Hard to say: he felt created, somehow, maybe more like an aesthetic or functional element rather than a character. It aims at being a wonderfully, terribly artistic book, I'd say, in the High Literature kind of sense that I'll characteristically defend, but Andy stuck out for me as novelistic. Other reviewers have mentioned The Double Hook as a comparison, in terms of its setting and so on, but I'd also mention The Sound and the Fury, and that novel's Benjy sections. (With the caveat that I haven't read Faulkner in 20 years!) Maybe Hooton knows all sorts of people with autism, and maybe he has one or more children with it. If so, then I'll need to interrogate my own expectations more closely, but even so, I'm structurally resistant to the artistic portrayal of children with special needs.

Second, multiculturalism: Canada's a multicultural place, and there are impressively multicultural little neighbourhoods all over this country, but its extent here felt a little contrived. As I've complained about a few other books over the years, it felt a bit like jury-baiting, which wouldn't be at all a bad thing for a High Literature novel to do that came out of a university Writing program: ticking the boxes for "Important Canadian Novel."

And finally, nature nature nature. I really appreciated the sensuousness of the novel's detail, the clarity and multi-sensory texture of it all. We'll see what the book club thinks, but I kept wondering if they were yanking their hair out over all that detail. They liked The Golden Spruce a lot, but not because of its natural description. I'm a commie pinko green, more or less, trending on occasion toward anarchy instead, so I'm normally going to get excited about natural description that's clear enough to assign nature a decentered and decentering power. I expected to feel that way with Deloume Road, and sometimes I didn't not feel that way, so that's something.

But the momentum was terrific, and the prose was -- as lazy reviewers will sometimes say -- luminous, and the characters were memorable. All the pieces were there for a terrific novel, and Deloume Road is one of the most polished, accomplished Canadian novels I've read in quite a while. Somehow, though, I never fell in love with it. I never enjoy feeling like I'm damning something with faint praise, but that's what's happening with this post. Other readers more worthy of trust than I am, though, have loved this book, so consider reading some of their positive reviews instead!


Debbie Gascoyne said…
You know, I had exactly the same reaction! (and what the heck DO reviewers mean by "luminous" prose?)
richard said…
"Luminous" can mean so many things: sometimes it's clearly "I was distracted by [am so lazy that I was distracted by?] the pretty prose," but sometimes it more usefully gestures toward that almost multi-sensory reaction to a book, where you end up feeling a bit dazed when you lift up your head again from reading.

But honestly, I wish I enjoyed the book more: it's seriously accomplished, and technically really impressive, so maybe it's just working better for other readers.
That Rob fella said…
Oi! Ease off on the lazy reviewers!
As one who has used luminous as a descriptor on a number of occasions, I use it to refer to prose that transcends itself, that approaches the holy in effect. Think of Keith Jarrett at Koln, or Miles Davis' So What - luminous.
richard said…
Hey, I'm a lazy reviewer myself: technically I might just be too busy to focus on the reviewing, but I'm okay being called lazy.

And jazz cries out for evocative descriptors like "luminous," if you subscribe to the "words fail me" school of music criticism, as I kind of do: Jarrett and Davis are great examples of artists whose best work is almost unfathomable. (Mind you, I think my favourite music critic would find words, even if I wouldn't....)

With fiction reviews, though, I'm usually looking for more than that. A thoughtful review that uses "luminous "is fine, definitely, but it's got to get a long way past blurb depth.
richard said…
Stupid blogger interface and its frequent failure to show hyperlinks: address for my favourite music writer, Glenn McDonald, is
Fraze said…
1. I think "luminous prose" may be approaching that zone where it gets meaningless through overuse. Or it might be smack in the middle of that zone by now. Whatever it's intended to mean, it now just reads as "real skillful writin' here".

2. Similar response to Deloume Road. I loved it at first, and still kind of like it. But you nailed the issue exactly: I was very happy when I was reading it, but when I stopped, I felt no strong impulse to go back to it. I've finished two other books in the meantime.
Anonymous said…
Mostly I love the reviews here, partisan included. But as a friend of the novelist and as a reader who liked the novel, I have to chime in, humbly, in my own partisan way. While I believe that representation (both artistic and political) ought not to be auto-biographically determined, MH has experiential insight into the first two issues you raise . . . his passport has more visas in it than most folks. And the sensuous nature prose reads to me as an indeed polished homage to the real/unreal memories of childhood place--I found the rich and botany-specific details in DR enjoyably evocative.


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