The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy

A bright star in Canada's literary galaxy
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Who or what is a romantic? In this beautifully-written novel, deeply felt but worked out with precision-steel technique, the romantic is Louise, constantly pondering two people she has loved and lost. The wondering creates her own identity, but in the end we realise that what matters is not the people who disappeared but the narrator. The real hero of romance is the romanticising imagination, not the romanticised beloved.

Barbara Gowdy from Toronto is a new star in that bright Canadian galaxy of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and the late Carol Shields. The Romantic, her sixth novel, is full of expertly timed cuts, flashbacks, reveries. At 10, Louise loses her ex-model mother, living to sterile perfection the Fifties Canadian suburban dream. Bored with the neighbours, with her daughter - except when dressing Louise in expensive fashions that make her ridiculed by school bullies - her mother vanishes one day. No explaining, no address.

The first person Louise falls in love with is a neighbour, Mrs Richter. She stalks Mrs Richter in her 10-year-old heart. Wearing a fur stole of her mother's (cut to rags to show she needs adopting) she slinks to church, where she hopes to see her. But Mrs Richter does not appear, and Louise's passion switches to her adopted son Abel, whose addiction and death is the novel's raison d'être.

Most deeply, this is a novel about loving someone who is gentle, generous and compassionate, but disappears into his own self-destructiveness. It's about loving an addict, surviving both what he does to you and you do in return. From the moment Abel shows Louise a golden-eyed toad in a ravine, the pair are launched on a romance that continues intermittently through their twenties, until Abel's suicide. The nearest Louise gets to understanding why he died is an essay Abel wrote on "life as oblivion", which turns up among the cats' vaccination papers. (Gowdy milks brilliantly the heart-rending power of domestic detail.)

Louise inherits this essay along with Abel's calligraphy pen, fossil trilobite cuff-links, and roach clip, which Mrs Richter thinks is a specimen collector. Reading it, Louise realises she has two options. Abel was either fatally enlightened, seeing himself as a particle of oblivion put on Earth only to observe, drinking to observe with uncorrupted impartiality; or just another gifted, damaged human being. Louise wants more explanation than that, but never gets it. Later, she discovers what her mother did after she abandoned her; how gallantly but inexplicably meaningless that life, also, was.

This is a sad but not depressing novel, all tender description and tough questions, vividly observant of adolescent agony. It suggests that healed survivors never forget; but also that the riddle of addiction, or any self-damaging choice, is the riddle of the Sphinx without a secret. There simply is no answer. For the survivor, storyteller or lover, the thing is how you fill that nothing with an accurate and kind interpretation of the person you have lost.

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