Bloomsbury £18.99

Canada, By Richard Ford

This novel of two halves, about a fugitive from his own past, who begins again in Canada, is a 'miracle of transcription and feeling'

Near the end of this magisterial, peculiar, riveting novel, Richard Ford produces what sounds like an artistic manifesto. A painter is discovered at work in a run-of-the-mill Canadian town. There is nothing picturesque in front of her – just "the view straight past the vacant post office and a pair of broken-in houses to the backs of the commercial row." Why is she painting it? "I couldn't see why this would be a subject for a painting," the narrator says, "since it was right there for anybody to see any time, and wasn't beautiful."

The painter, described as an artist in "the Nighthawks style" – in other words, Edward Hopper realist – says, "I just paint things I like, you know? Things that wouldn't be pretty otherwise." The narrator is puzzled – as "what she was painting was exactly what I saw ... it seemed a miracle but peculiar."

In Ford's novels, what is depicted is exactly what is seen, a peculiar miracle of transcription and feeling. His world is dense with objects, accurately set out – in Canada, there is a passage when the narrator enters the rancid-smelling shack of a murderer's henchman, and the reader gets a pitiless account of his worldly possessions. We feel we are walking through a marvellously furnished world.

But just as accurate and detailed is the superb sense of life, of observation and feeling, enacted on every page; the sense in Canada that we are central to some dramas, peripheral to others, and constantly walking in the middle only of our own little stories. All the characters are "people running from the past, who didn't look back at much if they could help it, and whose whole life always lay somewhere in the offing".

Canada has an extraordinary structure, comparable, perhaps, to Conrad's Chance. Cast in two barely connected halves, only at the very end do we see the whole. It is narrated by Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old boy at the very end of the 1950s (and hence Ford's exact contemporary). He is one of two children of a mismatched couple, a feeble, semi-criminal ex-serviceman and a frustrated Jewish intellectual; he is closest to his twin sister, Berner.

The atmosphere of deracination in 1950s Montana is strong – "we didn't attend a church, which was fine because there wasn't a Jewish one in Great Falls anyway."

The friendless twins are unacknowledged observers of a tragedy of weakness. The father, Bev, is discharged from the forces for handling stolen meat; he tries to repeat the scam in the civilian world. Then, when things go wrong and he finds himself owing $2,000 to some cattle-rustling Indians, he persuades his wife to carry out a pathetic bank robbery.

The daring of the novel comes with Dell leaving his twin sister and his parents in jail, and being taken by a family friend to refuge in Canada. The friend has been mentioned exactly once before this point.

After this moment, the bank robbery has no consequences; Dell never sees his parents again, and his sister barely. The action of the second half of the book, and the murders at its climax, have no connection with the first half apart from Dell himself. And yet the moment when everything drops away, and Dell is left alone, crossing the border into a new and unknowable life, is breathtaking. We see how a life can form its own luminous bridge into the blank future.

"Canada was better than America, she said, and everyone knew that – except Americans. Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was mad about it." The grand and extraordinary sequence of the second half of the book is an examination of what America might mean, and what it does mean, from the point of view of fugitives – people who will never go back to America, and who will happily kill anyone from America who comes looking for them.

But the grandeur of Canada is not just in its examination of the local situation, though Ford is always exact. The moment when the well- dressed crook Arthur Premlinger meets Dell for the first time and "began turning his hat around in his fingers, as if he was appraising me" is only one of many moments of tiny precision. But like few contemporary novelists, he feels free, and is free, to make large observations about the human condition; and here, too, Ford is exact. At two points in the novel, I felt a shock of recognition which I had never felt before. One is when Dell says that people who confess to their crimes do so "to ... make the present give way to almost any future at all. Who wouldn't admit everything just to gain release from the terrible present?" The other – ah, I don't think I can tell you about the second. It was just too personal, and too painfully accurate, so that I thought for a moment Richard Ford knew all about me.

Canada is a painful, unique novel from the pinnacle of which all observed life seems to be laid out for us.

Philip Hensher's latest novel, 'Scenes From Early Life', is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99)



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss