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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book Review: "Mister Sandman" by Barbara Gowdy


“’The truth is only aversion.’” – Sonja Canary

In this beautifully written novel, the reader is introduced to each member of the Canary family. Early on it becomes clear that a great deal of how this unconventional family functions is through deceit. At first, it seems like this is a family doomed to destruction and angst. Afterall, the truth can only be buried so long. And, don’t most contemporary novels featuring highly dysfunctional families end sadly?

Happily, in “Mister Sandman”, what ultimately shines through each character’s obvious flaws is a genuine love, protection and devotion to each other that is endearing and comical. Joan, the family’s ethereal and mute youngest member, becomes the sounding board to whom the rest of the family divulges their secrets. She is a silent observer, a gravitational force that pulls the family inward and keeps it together. Later, she is also the catalyst for moving everyone together towards greater honesty with themselves and each other.

In Nancy Pearl’s “BookLust”, “Mister Sandman” is recommended as a “Coming Out” novel. Gowdy’s story is indeed frankly sexual. But whatever a reader’s comfort level with honest sexuality, I have seldom read a book with stronger characterizations, whose every sentence – nee, every word – is purposeful, thoughtful, and necessary to the story.

Though this is a family inherently averse to truth, it is their duplicity that gives them authentic dimensionality. While their dishonesty is never overtly approved of, neither is it the means to the Canary’s destruction.

“Mister Sandman” reminds me of John Irving’s early books minus the angst. I definitely want to read more of Gowdy’s books. I recently purchased “The White Bone”, a story told from the perspective of an elephant. With such far-reaching literary abilities, Gowdy deserves to become better-known in the United States.

“Mister Sandman” was an absolute pleasure to read. Despite such a vastly odd cast of characters and strange family mix, this is an uplifting story of a family whose devotion to each other rises above everything else.

“They could be a family spending a day at the beach together. If they were on a beach. If it was day.”

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