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George & Rue, by George Elliott Clarke

Destitution, depravity and racial division in post-war Canada

George Elliott Clarke, already established as a poet, bases his first novel on a brutal murder in Novia Scotia in 1949: two African-Canadians, George and Rufus Hamilton, robbed a taxi driver and battered him to death with a hammer. The murder aroused such widespread revulsion that its location is still known as "Hammertown". Clarke discovered that George and Rue were distant cousins of his, and the novel is the result of his fascination with the case.

The brothers were born in Three Mile Plains, a settlement of disintegrating shacks which housed a community lacerated by poverty and racism. Their father was a violent alcoholic who squandered his earnings on rum and prostitutes. The boys' mother hankered after the cosmopolitan delights of Halifax - the nearest sizeable metropolis - and pursued an affair with a local preacher. The two brothers learned to lie, cheat and steal.

George was the steadier of the pair, an agricultural labourer who showed signs of settling into domesticity with a wife and children. Rue, when he wasn't thieving, played piano in a bordello in Halifax, but he lacked formal training and the clientele found his jazz enervating. The brothers' awful fate was sealed when Rue hit upon the taxi robbery as the solution to their money problems.

Clarke's style recalls honky-tonk jazz, with ragged improvisation and riffing to the fore. His rambunctious prose leavens the narrative with dark humour and possesses enough energy to overcome any infelicities of tone. He is especially adept at drawing ironical poetry from poverty. He is able to take the delineaments of destitution and recast them in wondrous ways. Rat poison is set out in the shack, "carefully, carefully, like meals fit for kings". When the boys' father beats them, "their blood had to smirk from the end of his stick." Nature provides no respite: "Snow belted them like their father's hand."

Sometimes when poets turn to fiction they have difficulty finding narrative structures to support the riches of their language. Clarke's selection of a real-life story might have helped him: it will be hard for readers to disengage from the brothers' downward trajectory. This formidably crafted recreation of a desperate episode should win widespread acclaim.