My first thought upon finishing this book, and I hate that it came to me in these words, was “what a good little book.” Right away I regretted the phrase; it appears, even to me, as a patronizing remark of the damning-with-faint-praise variety, and that’s not at all what I intend to do. After all, as I said to a friend over coffee this afternoon, I would most certainly read another book by Claire Cameron, based solely on the experience I had reading The Line Painter. It was, after all, a good book. It had interesting characters that I could imagine walking the streets out there somewhere, it had an excellent plot that was, as advertised, a genuinely fresh take on a premise that has been worked over by authors and film makers literally for generations. It was decently paced and hit all the right emotional notes. It was suspenseful, heartbreaking, funny and touching at all the right moments. There was something just not quite right about it, something that seemed off, if only by a semitone (that analogy may not make any sense; I don’t really know much about music). It took me a while to identify what that thing was: the tone.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I am extra-sensitive when it comes to books set in the north, particularly when they are set so close to where I’m actually from (the novel takes place mostly on the highway between Hearst and Kapuskasing; I’m from a few hundred kilometers northwest of there, and have been through both communities more times than I can recall), and particularly when they are written by southerners. My noticing this at all may have simply been a case of my being too much on the lookout for misrepresentations. Northern Ontario (or more accurately, Northwestern Ontario) has the potential to be rendered in much the same way as some of the more superficial representations of the rural American south, but is equally complex in its own unique way. Cameron did a pretty good job with Hearst. It certainly fits my experience of the town, such that it is. I have zero complaints with her rendering of northern people or attitudes. It’s plain that she did her research; there are a few moments when her Torontonian narrator makes erroneous assumptions or presents false information, but one of the Hearst locals always corrects her eventually. That actually brought a smile to my face.
Right, the tone. The story, the details of which I will not divulge (as I mentioned above, suspense is a big part of this book, and I would hate to spoil that pleasure for those who have not yet read it), felt like it needed a slightly muted, almost-but-not-quite gothic tone. More rural gravitas, I guess. Even though some scenes took place in Toronto, it’s very much a rural novel, but it had the casual, bustling tone of an urban novel. Now, in some ways it’s altogether appropriate that the novel have an urban tone; Carrie, the narrator and protagonist, is from Toronto and seems to have ventured not very far from that city for the bulk of her life. In my experience there is something about people from Toronto when they encounter the genuinely rural parts of the country. They seem to shift from being regular folks to being the sort of folks who look at everything with an attitude that says Toronto is how real people live. Carrie’s tone, and therefore the tone of the whole book, had that in spades when nothing suspenseful was going on, and it took me out of the story a bit, made me more aware that I was reading a book. A good book, mind you, but still I prefer to read without that awareness at the front of my consciousness. I say again that I may have only noticed or felt this or even been bothered by it at all simply because I was already on the lookout for things that didn’t ring true. I’ve made more of the issue than I meant to; I really did enjoy the book, and highly recommend that you read it. In fact, I’ve already loaned my copy out to at least one interested party.
Before I end I should probably also say that I loved the cover, despite the fact that the book had French flaps and a deckle edge, both of which I despise. Also, if you missed the link above, Claire Cameron has a blog. Next up is Blue Ridge, by T.R. Pearson.