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To All Appearances a Lady

Canada’s size makes it all but invisible, for how can we focus on something so large? Brian Moore and Neil Bissoondath have shone on its cities an outsider’s torch-beam. Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Robertston Davies and Alice Munro have each with their vision and variety, projected a pattern of culture and history crossed with the grain of an insider’s touch.

And now to their ranks comes Marilyn Bowering, a poet from Victoria, a debut novelist of power and mesmeric voice. To All Appearances a Lady harvests those adjectives which lie limp on publishers’ handouts: vivid, absorbing, perceptive, sensitive and spare.

It is one book and many: a Vancouver island coastal travelogue; a ghost story, a trek after roots; a poetic monologue, and a history of Chinese struggle and settlement on the eastern Canadian seaboard.

Its steady, sometimes beseeching voice—that of its narrator Robert Lam—belies its drama, for beneath the surface of the writing’s energy lurks a threatening sense of fear.  It is 1957 and Robert Lam, having recently buried Lam Fan, his Chinese stepmother, casts off aboard the Rose on a journey through the fog and erratic currents, the winds and islands of the British Columbian coast.

Thus Lam’s rite of passage becomes a complex exploration, an actual journey matched by his quest into the murkier terrain of the troubled past. The ghost of Lam Fan becomes his guide. She is beguilingly created by Marilyn Bowering, more real, more intense, more icily present than the living Robert Lam; exactly right.

She perches on the wheelhouse, chiding him, teasing him, a relic who brings him stories of that past he hungers to possess.

But revelation comes swathed in mystery—just like the Rose as it nuzzles baffled into the mists around the coast: did India Thackery,  Lam’s mother who drowned in his childhood, really kill herself? Why had her husband Robert Haack, a misfit criminal and gambler, gone missing just after their marriage? What is the meaning of Lam Fan’s confession that Robert Lam’s sorrow is “a burden caused by me”?

In a faltering act of expiation she unveils a past which for both of them holds the key to their release. Lam’s personal history becomes inseparable from the story of Chinese immigrants.  The narrative bursts its banks as Lam Fan pictures 19th-century Victoria, “a grid of Chinatown in the early morning light” with its multitude of alleys peopled with peddlers, whisky sellers, fishmongers and shippers in “a maze where tenement piled on tenement like so much waste.”

Into this bowel of corruption, squalor and enterprise come the dealers in black-market opium, the addicts such as Lam Fan, the pimps and low-lifers such as Robert Haack, a pathetic fantasist who befriends and betrays illegal immigrants.  His life rides the peaks and troughs of melodrama but Marilyn Bowering confounds such simplicity; Haack’s heart is crushed, he is weak and slippery, his mind writhes like a viper; yet his demise is strangely moving, for he might have had other possibilities.

He might have been Robert Lam’s father.  That he isn’t prompts the question that stalks Lam’s thoughts: who are his ancestors? Lam Fan knows. Her tale is tortuous, at times unnecessarily so. As Robert Lam navigates a course between the islands, she bestows her knowledge. Choice and fate are its key ingredients; Robert Lam steers, but believes in destiny.

“Fate is a chain of cause and effect,” he says, as he learns how his mother was cast on to D’Arcy Island off Victoria, a white woman lost among Chinese lepers. Lam himself grows ill during the journey, dark intimations of something serious, even fateful. As the tale unravels it becomes clear that what had seemed like parallel journeys—that of the Rose and its moribund twosome stalked by the story of Robert Lam’s forebears—are in fact converging pathways.

Lam himself ends on D’Arcy Island, tense in the present: “My legs are shaking with tiredness, and the numbness in my face has returned.” He is at large among the detritus of his parent’s last dramatic years: the charred evidence of a bush blaze, the stench of death, a human forearm and hand, “scraps of cloth are attached to the bones”. “There is always one more surprise,” Lam Fan says.

That surprise is one of the moments of this novel, for Bowering knows that among the poetry and pity of its telling, life itself turns on moments, on those flashpoints of decision, inaction, desperation or collapse.

Fate’s talons grip Lam’s world and make it tragic; yet his final act on D’Arcy Island subverts that grip and is both poignant and heroic. Bowering writes at the edge of her talent; she is affirmative, clear, faithful to life’s mystery. To All Appearances A Lady is a marvellous debut, to all appearances a paragon of dazzling imagination.

Scotland on Sunday, Tom Adair

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