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)