Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 268 pages, 1995

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: The Romantic was one of my top ten books of 2003.

Synopsis: After the birth of the mysterious Joan, dropped on her head at birth, her family deals with everything from complacency to promiscuity to homosexuality. The narration jumps from family member to family member, as Joan watches everything silently, unable, or unwilling, to talk.

Why you should read this book: There’s something mesmerizing about Gowdy’s often bizarre writing, yet it still remains deeply human, something that few authors can pull off. The story flows smoothly between all of the narration changes and the passing of the years. Gowdy draws the reader in to such a degree that the creepiest of situations seems almost normal. Reading this book feels like a guilty indulgence.

Why you should avoid this book: While sprinkled with humour, much of the book is dark and disturbing to the point where some people might find it offensive.

Opening paragraph:

Joan Canary was the Reincarnation Baby. Big news at the time, at least in the Vancouver papers. This is going back, 1956. Joan was that newborn who supposedly screamed, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ at a pitch so shrill that one of the old women attending the birth clawed out her hearing aid. The other old woman fainted. She was the one who grabbed the umbilical cord and pulled Joan head-first onto the floor.

Fabulous quotes:

Gordon wasn’t alone in confessing to Joan or using her as a sounding board. They all did it, although maybe not so involuntarily. Without a pang, Doris tried out lies on her. When the mail arrived and the sound of it coming through the slot sent Joan flying into the closet (if she wasn’t there already), Doris would chase after her and sit in the closet doorway to open the letters, never failing to get a charge out of Joan’s perfect echo of the envelopes ripping. If there were any overdue notices of final notices Doris would announce them and ask how they were going to weasel out of paying. Joan would look at her, seemingly rapt. Then Doris would say something like, ‘I know! I’ll tell them I moved the bank account and they mustn’t have transferred the money yet!’ If she snapped her fingers, Joan immediately snapped hers.

Sonja carries four bags of Chinese food, cradling two in each arm, and Hen carries the other, a cooler and the car blanket. He walks in front of her and bellows words over his shoulder – ‘Nicotiana!’ ‘Cosmos!’ – speaking in a foreign language, she thinks, impressed, until it’s ‘Nasturtiums’ and then ‘Marigolds.’
He leads them down a secluded slide of lawn to a stream. By now she is pouring sweat and has a stitch in her side. After setting down his load he spreads the blanket right at the verge of the water and kicks off his loafers and sits. He yanks off his socks, shouting at her to do the same. ‘Don’t peek,’ she says as she lifts her skirt to undo the fasteners holding up her nylon stockings. What she doesn’t want him to see is her slapdash sewing job – the length of white elastic that at the last minute she attached to this old garter belt (using black thread because it was handy) to get it to stretch around her waist.

Also recommended: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson; Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood; Atonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall.

Also by this author: Helpless; Through the Green Valley; Falling Angels; We So Seldom Look on Love; The Romantic; The White Bone.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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