‘First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ So begins Richard Ford’s latest novel, Canada, a sumptuous, elegantly paced, beautifully written story that begins in the small town of Great Falls, Montana in 1956. Our narrator, Dell Parsons, a young man who tells his tale in the same level, measured tone as Indignation’s Marcus Messner, gently recounts how his father, a former Army Air Corps man brim-full with often misplaced hope and optimism, and given to involvement in dodgy schemes, manages to persuade his wife, Dell’s mother, Neeva Kamper, ‘a tiny, intense, bespectacled woman with unruly brown hair, downy vestiges of which ran down her jawline’, to rob a bank in order to extricate himself from a predicament with the local Native Americans and the effect it had upon Dell and his sister Berner. Pretty much from the get-go we know that the eventual bank robbery is not a success, Dell telling his tale from many years hence, building up the narrative from fragments of memory and scraps gleaned from an account his mother wrote in prison.
As we circle the eventual robbery, we inhabit the lives of the family, Ford fleshing out the history of Dell’s parent’s not wholly successful marriage, in the process of which offering a study of life in America in the middle of the last century. There is a marvellous interlude shortly after Dell’s parents have been taken away by the police when Dell and Berner play grown-up for a couple of days, Berner’s boyfriend coming out to the house, the three of them smoking and playing their mum and dad’s records. Berner is not for sticking, though, and leaves Dell to his own devices – leastways until a friend of Dell’s mother arrives to take him to stay with her brother up in Canada. The second half of the novel sees Dell working out of a hotel near Saskatchewan in the shadow of a man called Arthur Remlinger who is himself on a collision course with an unruly fate. The narrative perspective afforded by Dell’s age (we catch up with the older Dell towards the back end of the novel) allows him to watch his younger self with wiser eyes – a device that I’ve seen fail more often than not, but here it works perfectly.
In Canada, the devil is in the detail. This is writing you can bask in. The world of the novel is so vividly realised that – pausing, say, to take a sip of coffee, you risk the same feeling you get emerging from a narcotic fug. Canada is the kind of novel you will want to be submerged in, utterly, for its duration. It is also a novel that is potentially diminished by a flat recounting of plot. There have been reviewers – Michiko Kakutani, for example, and Hari Kunzru on the Late Review – who have taken issue with the apparent improbability of the novel. Would a young man have parents who rob a bank then find himself holed up with someone who once committed murder, they said, as if lives are tied to a single terrible defining event. Improbability is a curious beast, though. You could take any book at random. Great Expectations. Jude the Obscure. The Mill on the Floss. Classics all – but if you pick at the probability thread and it threatens the experience. All you can ask yourself is – did the book do what it set out to do, was I entertained, was I gripped, was I taken on a journey, was I happy to be transported? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Canada was, for me, such a pleasurable read that it has again made me question my reaction to his previous novel Lay of the Land, a book that has moved up the re-read list in the process. It was also the first Richard Ford book since the superlative Independence Day to have me smiling at the writerly skill involved in producing such beautiful words.
Any Cop?: One of the absolute best reads of 2012. Highly recommended.