The great Canadian novelist you've never heard of

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010

Writing about Canadian fiction last September, I bemoaned Canadian publishers' penchant for somnolent navel-gazing over lively social commotion. I want novels written for real readers, not for creative-workshop peers.

As if waiting for exactly this gauntlet to fall, an author I'd never heard of sent me his novel. Braced for amateurism, I dipped in and was pleasantly shocked to discover an original, richly imagined and eloquently rendered literary world.

The book's title is The Octave of All Souls. The author is 61-year old Robert Eady, an Ottawa area poet and essayist. Astonishingly, given Eady's easy mastery over content and form, this is his first novel. Octave was published by a tiny independent press with little distribution, because the manuscript had been rejected by all large Canadian publishers. What were they thinking?

I'll hazard a guess. That the novel was too politically incorrect to take a chance on.

It's true that Eady is an unusually conservative Catholic (he attends a traditional Latin-rites church) and an outlier in the literary community -- his writing was well-received until he wrote an anti-abortion poem, bringing publication offers to a juddering halt -- but Octave is not a "Catholic" novel in any didactic sense. On the contrary, some of its most admirable characters are secular, and an unsympathetic character is a repugnantly obtuse, but devout Catholic.

Mortals -- the good, the bad, the mostly in-between -- are the novel's subject. In Octave, Eady patiently picks apart a small town's intimately tangled social circuitry through the lens of a vital, sensitive central character, a morally striving student of humanity on whom nothing is lost or wasted.

The central character in this epistolary novel, only identified as "J. T.," is an outwardly insignificant, aging Catholic spinster living with two cats over a bowling alley in the small fictional Ontario town of Strathearn. The premise for the long letters she writes to "Dearest Friend," a childhood schoolmate, now an Oblate missionary in South America, is his request for information about the town and the inhabitants he left behind. In her earnest, animated and wryly humorous evocations of people, dialogues and events, J.T. emerges as a fully realized creation.

Although we learn late in the book that J.T. went through a "snooty atheist period" in adolescence, she has lived most of her life as an ardently committed Catholic. The title refers to the traditional Catholic practice of visiting the cemetery between November 2-9 inclusive (the "octave" of days) and praying for the souls of those who have died in the previous year. In the novel's octave year, Strathearn's dead amounts to 14 people J.T. has taken it upon herself to pray for in the hope of saving their souls from purgatorial fire.

Her departed charges are a motley crew. Amongst others: a controlling councilwoman drunk on her power over "easements" to the river; a hyper-energetic mother who has turned her diner, the Democracite Cafe, where J.T. breakfasts every day, into a "bustling mausoleum" consecrated to a son killed at Dieppe; a manly, but inscrutable bulldozer operator who would "sit like a desperado's corpse propped up for public viewing after an Old West gunfight"; a bitter Hungarian survivor of communist oppression who considers the Charter of Rights a Marxist conspiracy; a sadistic, bigoted drug dealer; an honest construction boss; the trailer-trash wife of a 300-pound superannuated hippie.

Most capaciously imagined is Strathearn's literary doyenne, Augusta Calpurnia Rolington, a former high school English teacher with hopelessly elite standards whom J.T. likens to "a medieval noblewoman who had gotten off at the wrong port in the wrong century and proceeded inland until she found a classroom."

J.T. tells Dearest Friend at the outset that her letters to him will include "no pathologies, tragic circumstances, or 'what-ifs' discussed gratuitously -- just the wherefore and sometimes a bit of the why of certain past lives and deaths."

In her leisurely, vividly reconstructed accounts of the trivial but pivotal human conflicts that tease out individual personalities and character -- you'd be amazed at the psychological and political tumult unleashed by an embittered

abandoned wife's humiliating rejection of a free birthday cupcake in a small-town diner -- J.T. also reveals much about herself and the tragic retreat from modest risk-taking in late youth that sealed her narrow and solitary fate.

J.T. is physically constrained to a prosaic flat, a tedious office job and the meagre social stimulation furnished by her fellow Saturday morning Mass attendees and other breakfast regulars at the Democracite Cafe. But like the town itself, whose 60 years of changes (good and bad) unfold within her subjects' chronicles, she battles her literary way from an almost parodically bland obscurity through ignominy and despair to hard-won dignity and grace.

Finally, what is a Canadian novel without ice, and a fear (so often realized) of falling through it? In Octave, treacherous black ice is the objective correlative to J.T.'s isolation and emotional wounded-ness. In a neat, original twist, though, a startling inversion of the ice imagery brings the novel home, accompanying J.T.'s shy final paean to optimism with sweet aesthetic and spiritual closure.

Columnist David Warren has called Octave "the most penetrating account of small town life I have ever read." Amen to that, and may it find its way on that account to high school English curricula all over Canada. Learn more about Robert Eady and the novel at octaveallsouls. blogspot. com.