A Boy Of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews

Love, death and sheer foolishness in the smallest town in Canada
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The Independent Culture

Maybe because Miriam Toews's second novel is set in a small town in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba (home to the late Carol Shields for many decades), the strap-line is "a big-hearted story". Don't be put off. A Boy of Good Breeding is seriously funny, rather brilliantly structured and full of characters who speak the same laconic language as Garrison Keillor's in Lake Wobegon.

Algren, population 1,500, has made the shortlist for a Canada Day visit from the Prime Minister, scheduled to do a walkabout to demonstrate his concern for rural issues. Mayor Hosea Funk's tranquil existence has been shattered by this impending arrival as his status as the country's smallest town is threatened by the birth of Sheila Kipp's triplets and the café owner's daughter. Then there is Knutie, the daughter of Hosea's best friend, Tom, who has moved back into her parents' home with her four-year-old daughter Summer Feelin', and plans to stay.

To complicate matters, Hosea's mother Euphemia confesses on her deathbed that her son's real father is the Prime Minister. But can you rely on the testimony of a mother who raised her son on the story that he was handed to her by a cowboy one moonlit summer night? As 1 July looms, Hosea takes to stalking patients at the local hospital, and keeps a secret list of births, deaths and possible additions to the town's population.

Beneath the surface, there are elemental struggles with death, identity, the meaning of love and the nature of loss. Knutie's mother Dory takes to obsessive DIY as her husband Tom gives up on life after a heart attack; Combine Jo (a nickname earned for driving a harvester down the main street once a year) swaps drinking for grandparenthood; Knutie learns to forgives Max, Summer Feelin's father, for abandoning her.

This is also a novel about small-town life as a microcosm of human folly, mystery and passion. Hosea remembers a moment from his childhood when he came home early from school and found Euphemia "doing a handstand on a kitchen chair, gripping the nubby edge of it with her fingertips and bicycling her legs around and around... When she noticed him staring at her, she slowly brought her legs down to the floor and put the chair back beside the table. Then she'd laughed. 'You know how it is, Hosea.'"

After reading A Boy of Good Breeding, you will know exactly how it is.