‘The Stranger’s Gallery’ an entertaining, rewarding read

Published on November 23, 2013

The Stranger’s Gallery
By Paul Bowdring
Vagrant Press/Nimbus Press
$21.95  360 pages

By no accident is Michael Lowe, the main character in “The Stranger’s Gallery,” an archivist.

This story is not just concerned with the memory of personal and national pasts, but with how it is preserved, in what compact order. And who decides that: who exactly is in charge of this fantastic, complex, continual archive?

Composed in an elegantly interlocking structure, the novel, author Paul Bowdring’s third, opens on Father’s Day, 1996.

Michael is surveying his “little street” just off Churchill Square, one of the first planned communities in Canada, though it was built before Newfoundland joined Canada. Michael learns this from Anton, a friend from Michael’s days of studying in Paris in the 1980s.

Anton, though also an archivist, has given up the trade in favour of truck driving, while continuing to be educated, or self-educated, on everything from Vermeer forgeries to the precious, rare cinquefoil plant.

It is in part through Anton’s digressions and musings on a variety of topics that the novel develops its compelling patina of data, saga and theory.

Anton has come to St. John’s because he is looking for his father. He only knows he was a Newfoundlander serving in the Canadian Army and part of the liberation of Holland.

All he has is a partial name, which may be false.

Across the street lives Miranda, a teacher and a painter. Michael is taken with her; he is alone as his marriage ended quietly and amicably some time ago.

Next door is Frank Morrow, diagnosed with terminal cancer but still a going concern — in fact, it seems he might outlive his own doctor.

Michael is also preparing to take his mother to church, which he does when his brother Hubert is out of town, though he never attends himself.

Michael’s father died when he was very small, and he hardly remembers him, though he puzzles over the information he has gleaned about the man, which includes some disinterred family secrets. This sense of mystery is the kernel of anything Michael can recall:

“When we were building a snowman, my father would always tell us that the creature would grow bones, including a skull, to hold himself up after we’d made him, and if we were patient enough to watch as he melted away, we would see them. But the bones would never be revealed to us unless we watched. Children waiting around to watch a snowman melt, of course, was as unlikely a scenario as adults watching paint dry, and we were never able to test this lie. ... Over the years this lore had assumed the status of a parable, a fable, an allegory, a myth. The Bones of the Snowman.”

Michael is also haunted — think gathering place, as well as fixation — by Brendan (Miles) Harnett, Newfoundland patriot and founder of a historical society dedicated to Judge Prowse, who is relentless in his denunciation of all that befell Newfoundland in 1933, and those he holds responsible for it (the “Bow-Wow Parliament”; the British).

The loss of that independence, that dream-nation, sends a wake of dreaminess — not of drowsy vagueness, but of what-if-ness poised on the cusp of the possible — pulsing through the story.

Then it cuts back to September 1995, and the arrival of Anton. This core story is wrapped like an artichoke heart in rich layers of family backstory, political intrigues, and a St. John’s setting so deftly evoked it is three-dimensional.

Even the title casts at least three shadows, including that of an actual gallery.

Michael is the archivist, not just as a career, but as a calling or vocation: he notices, he makes notes and he never throws anything away. And his two-weeks-turned-into-eight-months-and-counting housemate, Anton, is equally and vitally concerned with his own and his country’s past, steeped as both are in occupation and deception.

The novel continually loops back to 1934 Newfoundland and Second World War Holland, to worry over the politics of national memory, and bring us, again and again, back to the archives.

This is also written by an author who loves to read. Almost any page includes references to Hamlet, Austen, Tristram Shandy.

This is also a self-conscious voice that will remark on his own narrating (“Jesus, I’m beginning to sound like Harnett”) or stress the myriad meanings of a word (“Toulinguet Close (Close!)”) even as it riffs on the suicide rates of dentists, the possibilities of a “total archive,” or the origin of the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

“The Stranger’s Gallery” is an accomplished work and an entertaining and rewarding book.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.