#642 Tales of timber and heartwood
by Michael Christie
Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2019
$35.00 / 9780771024450
Reviewed by Heather Graham
On September 3, 2019, Michael Christie’s Greenwood was longlisted for the 2019 ScotiaBank Giller Prize; on March 12, 2020, Greenwood was a double nominee for the 2020 BC and Yukon Book Prizes: it was shortlisted for both the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize. Winners will be announced on September 19th – Ed.
Michael Christie’s latest novel unfolds over a span of one hundred and thirty years, from 1908 until 2038. The precipitating event for what will follow is a head-on collision between two passenger trains near the town of Kingston, Ontario; the closing scene takes place at the docks in Vancouver, British Columbia, during a time of environmental collapse. The novel will touch down three times between these chronological boundaries: 1934, 1978 and 2008. So five historical eras, each with its own particular and unique characteristics, all connected by the dramatic events surrounding one family.
The only survivors of the 1908 train crash are two small boys, unrelated to each other, who are “taken in” by local townspeople; they’re never really cared for, just given a place to live where they learn to take care of themselves. As they grow to adulthood, the boys are given the names Harris and Everett, and, for a surname, Greenwood, in recognition of their considerable skills as woodsmen. So a family is created from tragedy, and eventually makes its way out into the wider world.
The wider world in this case is 1934 and the Great Depression. The second movement of Christie’s tale is still set in Canada, but the narrative has shifted geographically. Harris Greenwood, now blind, is a wealthy West Coast lumber tycoon living in Vancouver’s upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood. Harris believes that his brother is dead, but in fact Everett Greenwood is living in Saint John, New Brunswick, squatting on land owned by H.J. Holt, the province’s wealthiest businessman. A great deal is going to happen in 1934, impossible to summarize and do it justice; suffice it to say that by the time the story moves on to 1978, its third stop along the chronological highway that the reader is travelling, the Greenwood family will have expanded to include Willow, pot smoking eco warrior, a true child of her times.
Willow’s son, Liam, will be the next generation of Greenwood, and his era is 2008. After an unsettled childhood living in a Westfalia van with his hippie mother, followed by a period of drug addiction, Liam now is a carpenter, an artist who works with reclaimed wood to add ‘authenticity’ to the lives of those who can afford to pay for it.
The last stop in this journey is 2038, and almost all of the action takes place on “a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia,” where Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood, daughter of Liam, is employed as a Forest Guide giving tours to Pilgrims who have come to marvel at something that exists almost nowhere else in the world: trees. Big trees. Old trees. Earth has undergone The Great Withering and is now essentially a Dust Bowl — a repeat, on a worldwide scale, of what happened in some parts of North America during the 1930s. Jake describes this little island, with its grandiose idea of itself as an arboreal cathedral, as “a silly theme park at the edge of the world.” Nothing but a commercial enterprise designed to make the most of a disappearing resource, one more way to wring profit out of trees, even as they approach extinction.
Describing Greenwood in this chronologically linear way makes it sound like a conventional narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. There definitely is a beginning, a middle and an end, but Christie does something very interesting with his material: he turns it inside out, more or less, so that 1908, the beginning, becomes the centre, surrounded by four circles, or rings, of story that the reader accesses twice. To put it another way, the novel opens in 2038, moves backward in time to 2008, 1978 and 1934 until it arrives at 1908 — the heartwood, in timber terms — then begins moving forward, touching down, one more time, in 1934, 1978, 2008, concluding in 2038. So the beginning is also the end, and everything else, except for the origin story at its core, is middle.
Christie’s decision to structure Greenwood as he has done is not because of a desire to do something experimental or clever; it’s his way of animating his central conceit, to use an old-fashioned word more commonly associated with a technique favoured by seventeenth-century poets like John Donne: drawing a connection between two unrelated phenomena to show something in a new and unexpected way. It’s not exactly original to see the rings of a tree as a metaphor for how a family develops around a central event, just as a tree develops outwards from a single seedling, but Christie’s decision to adopt this kind of structure for his narrative is a bold one.
Christie first appeared on the literary scene with a knockout collection of short stories entitled The Beggar’s Garden (Harper Collins, 2011). Most of the stories make use of his personal experience working on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a rich source of raw material for any writer, and he does it proud. To be sure, there are a few rough edges — some curiously off-kilter turns of phrase (“Dan flared with a sudden and insatiable interest in dogs,” “his sudden sweaty gleam,” “nudging Bernice’s ribs”), or too convenient plot device (a moving dolly right at hand just when a homeless scavenger needs one to transport his latest find) — but every story speaks to the arrival of a talent to watch.
Next came a novel: If I Fall, If I Die (McClelland & Stewart, 2015). The setting is Thunder Bay, where Christie grew up, so once again he’s using what he knows to make art. Thunder Bay is a city with a long history of troubled relations between its indigenous and non-indigenous residents, something that plays an important role in what is primarily a story of family dynamics. The plot of If I Fall, If I Die is a little wobbly at times, suggesting that the transition from the short story form to a full-length novel may have been a challenge. But overall it’s a respectable piece of work, and evidence that its author is prepared to take chances.
Greenwood is a sure sign that Christie intends not only to stay with the longer form of the novel but to push ahead into new territory. There is, of course, its unconventional narrative structure, and the story itself is a grand edifice of fictional artistry. A bachelor rescues an infant from certain death and takes it from one side of Canada to the other, with the agents of various powerful forces in hot pursuit; two wealthy men have secrets they will do anything to protect; a woman renounces the family fortune and spends her life trying to destroy the industry that created that fortune; the ecosystem is collapsing, and all living things are under threat. There is love, betrayal, desperation, endurance. To describe the novel as “sweeping” hardly seems to do it justice.
Christie has created an impressive cast of characters to populate his fictional world, and not just the members of the immediate Greenwood family. Two of the supporting players in the 1934 segment deserve special note: Harvey Lomax, H.J. Holt’s “fixer,” and Temple Van Horne, Saskatchewan spinster farmer. Although these two have important roles to play in the story, they are much more than subplots. The care and attention Christie pays to them, the tenderness he shows towards their struggles, is reminiscent of how he handles some of the characters in The Beggar’s Garden. He’s also good at dialogue; there are wonderful scenes between Lomax and his weasel of an employer, between Harris Greenwood and the people he employs and is dependent upon because of his blindness. Even the novel’s most minor interactions ring true.
Those odd turns of phrase that have marked Christie’s work right from the beginning are still present in Greenwood — “a thought that upheaves his stomach,” “a dose of contentment spills over his chest,” “literary escapes him” — but Christie’s biggest problem is managing the requirements of such an extended and complex story. Alert to the dangers of “plot holes you could drive a truck through,” which he works hard to avoid, he sometimes has to scramble and do some patching, as when he drops a parenthetical remark into the middle of a sentence to explain how it is that a character has a particular piece of information, or when he has to find a way to account for the fact that a note has been hidden in Jake’s closet without her knowledge.
On a few occasions, Christie relies on implausibilities — that is, incidents that might, just might, be possible, but are not very likely — such as Jake’s falling of the biggest tree on the island, a 12,000-year-old Douglas fir known as God’s Middle Finger, two hundred and thirty feet high and thirteen feet wide at its base, a feat she accomplishes by herself. Or the incident involving Harris Greenwood and his lover, Liam Feeney, who hide out in the men’s restroom of the Hotel Vancouver during a party, without realizing that Harvey Lomax just happens to be in the stall right next to them. Given Harris’s terror of being revealed as a homosexual, wouldn’t the two men have at least checked to make sure they were alone before engaging in certain intimacies? And wouldn’t other guests have made visits to the restroom during the same time?
But Christie’s biggest challenge is creating a means of escape for Everett Greenwood when the authorities track him down to the island where he and baby Willow are hiding out in Harris Greenwood’s cabin. Plot-wise, it’s okay — in fact necessary — for Everett to be captured, but just as necessary for Willow to be spirited to safety. The escape will require having a back door in the cabin, and it must be a door that those on his tail don’t know about. So at an early point in the story, Christie makes sure that a back exit is added to the cabin, although there’s no explanation as to where the door came from, never mind the hinges and handles. And hanging a door is not the easiest feat of carpentry. Still, the deed is done, and the plot is able to move forward.
As for the requirement that Everett’s pursuers not know about this second door, Christie deals with it by adding another layer of improbability. Among Everett’s pursuers are some recently recruited Mounties (don’t Mounties have to go to Mountie school before being assigned to the field?), local boys, in fact. The father of one of these boys was, we are told, “the lead carpenter of the crew that built the cabin,” a man who knows there is no back door, therefore no way for Everett to escape, therefore it’s not necessary to post a watch at the rear of the cabin. The end result? Everett is able to escape and hide little Willow in the supply container that will eventually be picked up by Liam Feeney, who takes the child to Feeney’s employer and lover, Harris Greenwood.
What do readers think when they hear the machinery of plot development grinding away in the background like this? Some, under the impression that this is how all storytelling works, might not even notice — perhaps one more thing we can blame on the internet and how it has “democratized the production of content,” meaning anybody can publish anything. Other readers may be willing to engage in a quid pro quo arrangement with the author: You tell me a good enough yarn and I’ll pretend not to hear those creaking noises.
Although it’s undeniably an engaging read, a real page-turner, Greenwood is best described as more tall tale than literary achievement. It’s the kind of novel some might describe as “ambitious,” code for an artist trying to do something beyond his or her ability to pull off, but in this case, that would not be true. Christie definitely has the ability, and based on his output so far, he’s quite capable of producing really impressive work. Maybe some readers are willing to settle for more tall tales if they’re as entertaining as Greenwood, but how about Christie himself? What does he want to do with his considerable talent? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Heather Graham worked as an editor for nearly thirty years, and during that same time made more than one foray into the seductive but fraught business of bookselling. Now officially retired, she indulges her bookish inclinations by taking on the occasional editing project, as well as trying her hand at the storytelling process itself and doing some of her own writing. She lives on Malcolm Island in Queen Charlotte Strait.
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