Spiritual medicine

THE CUNNING MAN by Robertson Davies, Hutchinson £14.99

"NOBODY in this God-damned country has a face," wails the dying lesbian sculptor Emily Raven-Hart, surveying Toronto, a city of bankers and brokers, as she envies the medieval carvers of Popes and princes.

Wrong, Emily. For staring from the dust-jacket of The Cunning Man, in which Miss Raven-Hart languishes, is the most splendid gargoyle of a face. Curmudgeonly, whiskery, one eye as beady as a bird's watching a worm, the other lost in shadow: Robertson Davies is - apparently - a cunning man himself, a wise know-all who makes sense of men's ills and humours, their melancholy, their bile and their choleric tantrums.

Here he has created another cunning man, Dr Jonathan Hullah, who was taught at the knee of Mrs Smoke, the wise woman of Sioux Lookout who saved his life during his childhood in the Canadian wilderness. Dr Hullah is not a doctor satisfied with the Western view of medicine men, handing out sheaves of prescriptions for every ill. Curing disease is a job for those understanding the anatomy of melancholy - a vocation akin to that of a writer, as the doctor/playwright Chekhov would well have understood.

As Robertson Davies points out, there is much about the Canadian psyche which is essentially Chekhovian. This is a new country, but it is also a place where people who struggle through harsh winters remember a past which has never been. Sepia-tinted nostalgia for Empire, and for the old wild ways in the newly conquered land, run through the memory like railroads across a prairie, and here Davies guides us through the labyrinthine story of Dr Hullah and love in its many guises.

Dr Hullah's tale takes us back to his youth in Sioux Lookout, where the new-fangled notions of Sigmund Freud split apart the easy-going harmony of the Hullah household. Dr Hullah's mother is a woman who believes in King, duty and the home. Sex is something that should stay hidden between the sheets, not be read about between the pages of her son's textbooks.

At Colbourne College in Toronto, Hullah discovers another love, the bonds of adolescent friendship which he forms with Brocky Gilmartin, offspring of a newspaper dynasty, and Charlie Iredale, already obsessively engrossed in Christ. The next portion of the book details Hullah's wartime service in Europe where he discovers that "the physician is the priest of our modern, secular world". Back in Toronto, Charlie Iredale is a priest at St Aidan's, where Hullah, who later builds a reputation as an unorthodox diagnostician, becomes a congregant.

St Aidan's, like Davies's book, is a rich cornucopia of colour, characters, adventures, and miracles. There are not just smells and bells, but chasubles and vestments, copes and mitres. Finally there is death at the altar rail of the holy man of St Aidan's, Father Ninian Hobbes, whose sudden demise at the very moment of transubstantiation opens the novel. Was he called to Heaven by his Maker, or sent on his way by someone else?

Here we learn about other loves, too. Dr Hullah never marries, but yearns for his old love, Nuala Connor, always believing in a passion that had never really been. Nuala, however, marries his best friend, Brocky Gilmartin, and together they savour a life Dr Hullah can never truly perceive. There is adultery here, and lesbian devotion, and experiences which had become "not the love that dare not speak its name, but the love that never knows when to shut up". There is also an Ibsenish obsession for a young woman who promises a glimpse of that far-off land of youth to which the ageing Dr Hullah can never return, but for which he still hankers.

And coursing through the novel is the heartbeat of another loved one, the city of Toronto. Davies's Toronto is a very different place from the towns of Carol Shields' Ontario, where quiltmaking wives with troublesome husbands and querulous children abound. Nor is it Margaret Atwood's Toronto, haunted by Robber Brides and other tough ladies. This is essentially a man's city of clubs and work, but far more than just a colonial outpost or America's back yard. It is a city of churches, of Bohemianism and sin, which is sanctified by love; a place where "new values and new heroes supplanted old manners and outworn ideals of heroism".

This is a rich, erudite and humanistic novel, with all the ingredients we have come to expect from Robertson Davies: detail, wit and wisdom. At times it rambles, almost suggests incoherence. But there is something not only for mind and body but for the spirit too.

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