Monday, August 17, 2009

The Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders) by Robertson Davies - 832 pgs


Book CoverThis trilogy of novels housed in one volume tells the story of the entanglements of three men whose fates are intertwined by one seemingly insignificant event in their small town of Deptford. The trilogy begins with Fifth Business, which tells the story of Dunstan Ramsay. When Percy "Boy" Staunton wraps a snowball around a rock and pitches in at Dunstan, it misses his target and hits the head of Mrs. Dempster, the minister's wife. The injury causes Mrs. Dempster to go into premature labor, and shortly after pushes her into madness. Although Dunstan feels incredibly guilty, Boy does not acknowledge his part in the incident. Dunstan goes on to war heroism and academic greatness, but cannot forget his part in the awful business with the snowball, and unable to forget it, he makes himself responsible for the woman who was so seriously impacted by the events of that day. Fifth Business is Dunstan's autobiographical letter detailing his life of unresolved guilt and hidden shame at the mess he believes himself to be responsible for. The second book, The Manticore, begins with Boy Staunton lying dead at the bottom of a lake with the fated rock from the prank hidden in his mouth. Now his grown son David is looking for answers to his father's death, which leads him to Switzerland for a course of psychoanalysis. What David uncovers sheds a new light on Boy and his unstoppable ambition, and the effects this has had on the people he loves, or claims to love. It seems that Boy thought himself at the center of the universe, with everyone around him only minor stars to aid his progress. But the question remains: Did Boy really die by his own hand, or was there another culprit? The last book, World of Wonders, focuses on the boy born to Mrs. Dempster, Paul, a strange lad that is unwittingly kidnapped by a magician and indoctrinated into circus life. Although Paul travels many unhappy years with the circus and becomes jaded and hard, he eventually reinvents himself as a foremost magician and illusionist with the help of a strange woman. But he never quite forgets the troubles he had in Deptford, or his enmity for Boy Staunton.These three stories weave in between each other to reveal the three vastly different men that were shaped by that horrible incident in Deptford, and tell a story studded with magic, humanism, and regret that will enrapture even the most guarded reader.

It is really hard to do justice to this book, either in my summary or my opinions on it, because there was just such an all-encompassing depth and reach to this story. Though I have outlined the bare bones of the plot, what can't be described is the exact fullness of spirit and idea that this book contained. At times the story veered into the realm of dark magical realism, but that side of the narrative never felt fully explored. Instead, it just teetered on the edge of the fantastical and mysterious. Between the stories of the three men of Deptford, Davies discourses on many other subjects as well: the differences between egoism and egotism, the strange role mythology plays in everyday life, and the chaos that surrounds a life of charisma and magnetism. It is not a simple trick, and I found that in order to balance some of these heavy philosophies, at times the characters and the story suffered. It was not really a straight narrative because much of his speculations had the effect of wandering away from the main plot and going off into other tangents. Not that I didn't appreciate that, but it made the book a much more dense and involved read, and it was not really what I had been expecting.

At times I felt that much of the plot was just a wrapper for certain ideas that the author wished to express. It was almost like the two, the philosophy and the narrative, existed entirely separately and the plot seemed to provide a convenient backdrop for some of the author's more slippery ideas. Much of the story held my interest, but there was something elusive about the way it was constructed, something that made me hold it at an arms length and examine it with a mixture of disdain and awe. It was an odd book that seemed to feed on it's own mythology and quiet pandemonium, and at times it was very unsettling.

The book had a long cast of characters and all walks of life were represented, from the perverted to the saintly, but most of them were supporting of the main five or six that the action settled around. I found it odd that I didn't seem to like any of the characters, and though I understood their motivations, I found that one of the reasons I could not get fully enveloped in the story was due to the distance that I felt for these people. Many were strange and unsettling, and some were just plain hostile and sadistic. Not the normal types of people I find amassed all together in one book, which I think speaks to the author's great capability for developing characters that stick with you whether you want them to or not. At times I questioned the humanness of the characters because they didn't react in typically human ways. I found most of them to be quite cold and just short of compassionate, and most of their softer emotions seemed at best poorly directed and misguided, with a few notable exceptions.

I find it hard to put my finger on my exact opinions on this book. While I think it was a brilliant book that juggled many themes, philosophies and ideas very well, I remained a bit separated from it and felt that there was an aspect of emotional squalidness and cynicism that encompassed it that I didn't want to examine too closely or be too involved with. All of these things seemed perfectly calculated by the author but left me a little uneasy. I think it spoke to a lot of the more base instincts in human beings and at times those truths were uncomfortable to look at. Davies is honest and succinct in his estimation of man, but at times I would have liked a bit more hope and a bit less harsh realism.

Although I found myself holding back from the book, I have to admit that the writing, atmosphere and complexities of the story were top notch, and I believe this to be a superior story. As far as the breakdown of the book goes, I would have to say that the first of the books, Fifth Business, was by far my favorite. I enjoyed the intricacies of Dunstan's story and felt that this first book held the most interest for me. The second book, The Manticore, was a lot less interesting but there were some really astute and penetrating sections that really hooked me in. The last book, World of Wonders, was a mixed bag. The story started off great and up until about halfway through I thought that it would be the best of the three. Later sections dealt with Paul's time in the theater among a travelling group of actors, and I felt that section dragged on too long and was less interesting than any of the other sections of the trilogy.

Although I struggled a bit with this book, and my interpretations of it, I think that overall it was very thought provoking and extremely well written. Davies has written two other trilogies and I will probably be taking a look at both of them sometime soon. If you are the type of reader who is not put off by some of the more abject aspects of human nature and are looking for a book with very deep character portrayals interspersed with some fairly complex ideology, I would reccommend this book to you. If you take the time with this book, you will find something indescribably impressive lurking within the pages.

9 comments:

Meghan said...

Hmm. I have this mostly because people on LT said it was brilliant. I like the sound of it, but its size has constantly put me off. I probably still won't get to it any time soon. I just don't feel I have the time to devote to such a huge book right now.

Steph said...

Zibilee, I understand your conflict with this book, because it's the way I feel about Robertson Davies myself! I have tried many times to get through Fifth Business because it is so well-respected and clearly Davies is a man of skill, but it just does nothing for me. I found it's brilliance to sporadic, and can never find it in me to finish it. I'm really impressed that you made it through the entire trilogy. Maybe one day I'll tackle it again, but for now I'm willing to allow that Davies and I are just out of synch!

Elizabeth said...

I tried to read Fifth Business a couple of years ago, and it was clearly the wrong time- the complexity just overwhelmed me. But I really hope to get back to it again one of these years!

Marie said...

What a great, detailed review. I've never read Davies but he's one of those everyone I know says I'd love. The way you describe it, it does sound like it would be right up my alley. :-)

Aarti said...

This is a fabulous review! "Emotional squalidness" is such a great term. I know what you mean about being unable to put a finger on exactly why you feel the way you do about a book- sometimes reactions just can't be worded properly.

In other news, it's your turn next week for Rosie's Riveters! I realized today that I shockingly do not have your e-mail address. Can you please provide it and I will send you the template? I am not sure when it will actually post as I'll be out of the country, but I will do my best to get it up in a timely manner!

Diane said...

This sounds like an exceptional piece of work. Thanks for profiling it.

Aarti said...

I'm so excited you got The Thief! So excited to hear what you think of it. I hope you like it- how funny that I'm NERVOUS about your reaction :-)

Lenore said...

I adored Fifth Business! I really need to read the rest of the trilogy.

Nymeth said...

What you said about mythology and dark magic realism definitely got me interested. It's too bad abut the cynicism, though. Like Meghan, I feel the sheer length intimidating, but maybe someday...

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