The Mysteries, by Robert McGill

Small-town vices and a tiger called Tamar
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The Independent Culture

Canada: A place where the high quality of life compensates for lack of excitement. Outside the major cities, the suspicion is that the predominant leisure activity consists of listening for pins dropping. Naturally, behind this calm curtain of small-town life is a maelstrom of vice, conflict and intrigue - at least if Sunshine, Ontario (formerly known as Mooney's Dump) is representative.

Canada: A place where the high quality of life compensates for lack of excitement. Outside the major cities, the suspicion is that the predominant leisure activity consists of listening for pins dropping. Naturally, behind this calm curtain of small-town life is a maelstrom of vice, conflict and intrigue - at least if Sunshine, Ontario (formerly known as Mooney's Dump) is representative.

Robert McGill's novel opens as an unnamed hitchhiker persuades the couple giving him a ride into town to crash a party and hand over a yellow notebook to someone called Alice Pederson. When they arrive, it transpires that Alice has been dead for some time. Then the mysteries come thicker than plaid shirts and faster than speeding ice-hockey pucks.

Why did the talented scholar Daniel Barrie vanish to England after Alice disappeared? Are the rumours of his affair with Alice true? Why has the former hockey star Rocket DeWitt fled? Is the wildlife park really an Indian burial ground? Is the insurance investigator Bronwen Ferry becoming too involved with Alice's husband, Mike?

Yet this is more than a thriller set in the boondocks. That is partly because it employs no less than a dozen narrative perspectives, including that of a tiger called Tamar. And each is sculpted with a sensitive precision which belies the fact that this is McGill's first novel (though perhaps, in Tamar's case, the anthropomorphism could have been more securely caged). It is refreshing to see more than one same-sex couple thrown into the mix without unnecessary to-do, and some of the narrative segments could make outstanding short stories.

For example, the tale of the lost life of Archie Boone, the town hobo who compulsively hoards garbage, nudges the elegiac: "Archie's dream was that one day his project would be complete. Then he'd throw open his home, and people would come to rediscover all the discarded contents of their lives before them, varnished, mended, watered, cleaned, waiting for their owners to claim them."

A little way in, the multiple viewpoints start to bring a strong element of uncomplicated entertainment to the surface of what is, fundamentally, a literary creation. They give the novel a Twin Peaks vibe, pivoting on the tension between the idiosyncracies and hidden histories of Sunshine's residents and the mundane grind of the town's public life.

Questions about whether ceremonies of pagan worship are taking place up at the wildlife park, Rocket's precise relationship with his coach, and exactly what the tigers do when they escape from their compound, all merge into a unsettling, yet paradoxically soothing, continuum.

Despite all the tight plotting, The Mysteries becomes an extended exercise in ambient writing. The author hollows out the anomie and disaffection of life in Sunshine to deliver the moods and feelings of a place where everything seems to happen, but nothing ever changes.

We are likely to hear much more of McGill.

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