Mister Sandman

Overview

Barbara Gowdy's outrageous, hilarious, disturbing, and compassionate novel is about the Canary family, their immoderate passions and eccentricities, and their secret lives and histories. The deepest secret of all is harbored in the silence of the youngest daughter, Joan, who doesn't grow, who doesn't speak, but who can play the piano like Mozart though she's never had a lesson. Joan is a mystery, and in the novel's stunning climax her family comes to understand that each of them is a mystery, as marvelous as ...
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Overview

Barbara Gowdy's outrageous, hilarious, disturbing, and compassionate novel is about the Canary family, their immoderate passions and eccentricities, and their secret lives and histories. The deepest secret of all is harbored in the silence of the youngest daughter, Joan, who doesn't grow, who doesn't speak, but who can play the piano like Mozart though she's never had a lesson. Joan is a mystery, and in the novel's stunning climax her family comes to understand that each of them is a mystery, as marvelous as Joan, as irreducible as the mystery of life itself. In its compassionate investigation of moral truths and its bold embrace of the fractured nature of every one of its characters, Mister Sandman attains the heightened quality of a modern-day parable.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Count this wickedly funny and moving novel by a Canadian writer the year’s sleeper. It’s unlikely that anything else will come along that will equal its combination of audacious concept, inspired characterization, frank sexuality, ribald humor and poignant message… Gowdy’s raucous, tender love is a find indeed.” Publishers Weekly (A Best Book of the Year)

Mister Sandman displays the same quirkiness, the same mordant sense of humor, the same ear for the vernacular, the same innocent-eyed acceptance of the bizarre, that characterizes her two previous novels…Gowdy surprises and delights; she also—which is rare—gives us the moments which are at the same time preposterous and strangely moving.” — Margaret Atwood, Times Literary Supplement (“Best Books of the Year”)

“One of the strangest—and most heartwarming—paeans to family ties you'll ever read. A+.” Entertainment Weekly

“ The family at the center of Mister Sandman is uniquely, whimsically dysfunctional. But it is the unexpected birth of Joan Canary, half idiot savant and half changeling, that catalyzes the individual idiosyncrasies and personal secrets of the people around her, melding them into a clan defined by its eccentricity…Joan’s possibly brain-damaged brilliance lies at the heart of both the narrative and the symbolism of this delightfully quirky novel, in which the Canary family’s life emerges as a weird yet often affecting group composition.’” The New York Times Book Review

“With Mister Sandman, Gowdy will surely join the ranks of Lorrie Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro and other great dark-humored literary beguilers. The novel is a true literary original, a perfectly pitched creation in which story, ideas and authorial voice merge so explosively, so felicitously that the reader feels compelled to exclaim ‘Yes!’ on almost every page.” L.A. Weekly

“There is an astonishing sensibility in Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman, which bounds, spritelike, into the farthest corners of lunacy while staying tethered to the author’s very real understanding of love.” — Elle (A Best Book of the Year)

“It’s truly a monumentally entertaining, brilliantly constructed novel...Barbara Gowdy is poised to be the next big thing.” — Bloomsbury Review

Entertainment Weekly
One of the strangest -- and most heartwarming -- paens to family ties that you'll ever read. A+.
Elle
There is an astonishing sensibility in (this novel), which bounds, spritelike, into the farthest corners of lunacy while staying tethered to the author's very real understanding of love.
NY Times Book Review
Joan's possibly brain-damaged brilliance lies at the heart of both the narrative and the symbolism of this delightfully quirky novel, in which the Canary family's life emerges as a weird yet often affecting group composition.
Washington Post Book World
So brilliantly crafted and flat-out fun to read that she makes jubilant sinners of us all.
LA Weekly
With Mister Sandman, Gowdy will surely join the ranks of Lorrie Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro and other great dark-humored literary beguilers. The novel is a true literary original.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Count this wickedly funny and moving novel by a Canadian writer the year's sleeper. It's unlikely that anything else will come along that will equal its combination of audacious concept, inspired characterization, frank sexuality, ribald humor and poignant message. When 15-year-old Sonja Canary, a sweet girl but a dim bulb, becomes pregnant after her sole sexual encounter, her parents-jittery, ditsy but wily Doris, and kind, mild-mannered but emotionally tormented Gordon-decide to declare the baby their own. When Joan is born, however, a series of bizarre circumstances-including a fall on her head-suggest that she is the reincarnation of a woman who committed suicide. It soon becomes obvious that Joan is brain-damaged but also preternaturally gifted. A dwarf, with gossamer hair and a ghostly complexion, Joan hides in a closet all day and never speaks, but she communicates by mimicking the sounds she hears (the click of a refrigerator door, an envelope ripping, a zipper); by playing the piano with remarkable skill; and by secretly audiotaping her family's hidden activities and desires. For it turns out that Gordon is gay and has had a relationship with the "orange haired giant'' who is also Joan's father; Doris discovers that she is a lesbian; and their younger daughter, Marcy, is sexually promiscuous. Ironically, Joan operates as a reincarnating spirit on the Canarys, allowing them to find and express their true identities. This undeniably strange saga is related in beautifully polished prose shot through with witty asides, startlingly poetic images and a series of hilarious scenes that beg to be read aloud. After demanding complete faith from the reader, Gowdy's zany imagination succeeds in making improbable adventures seem logical, true and touching. For all their eccentricity and sexual waywardness, the Canarys are a family whose love for each other is palpable. Named "Book of the Year'' by Margaret Atwood in the Times Literary Supplement, Gowdy's (Falling Angels) raucous, tender novel is a find indeed. (Apr.) FYI: Booksellers can get advance galleys of Mr. Sandman by calling 800-639-7140.
Library Journal
The Canarys are not your typical family. Gordon and Doris are the parents of Marcy and Sonja, who at the age of 15 is pregnant with Joan. As Joan is born, she is dropped on her head, and the resulting brain damage turns her into an idiot savant. Gordon has affairs with men while Doris approaches other women. Marcy loses her virginity during her teens and then proceeds to have numerous affairs with men, usually sleeping with two or three at a time. Sonja stays at home, eating a lot and knitting, while Joan learns to read yet never speaks and avoids strangers and daylight. She serves as the group consciousness and mutely listens as each family member confides his or her various quirks and thoughts. Solidly written, this thought-provoking, challenging novel by a Canadian writer with a story collection and two previous novels to her credit is recommended for large fiction collections.Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., Ohio
Salon
The jacket copy for the Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy's Mister Sandman calls it "a modern-day parable," and unfortunately, it is. I'm not a big fan of the grotesque mixed with the whimsical, especially when strangeness is used to gussy up a tale that only adds up to quaint homilies about the healing power of love and acceptance. Mister Sandman comes to the States with extraordinary praise, however. Margaret Atwood picked it as one of the "books of the year" in the Times Literary Supplement, and the current, controversial film "Kissed" is based on a Gowdy short story.

Gowdy's heroine is the pixie-sized idiot savant Joan. Brain-damaged as a result of being dropped at birth, Joan, who doesn't speak but communicates through an array of echolalic sounds, is a piano prodigy, a voracious reader, a maker of experimental sound collages and Gowdy's compact little plot device. Stowed away in the closet where she prefers to spend her days, she's the repository of the family secrets. She knows that both her parents are gay (though closeted), and is aware of her older sister Marcy's prodigious love life. She even has a secret herself: She's actually the daughter of her eldest "sister," Sonja, but she's passed off as the child of Doris, her grandmother.

Gowdy's greatest asset is that she's not fazed by weirdness. Early on, Doris hatches a scheme to get the money for Sonja's pregnancy by appearing on the '50s sob-sister sweepstakes "Queen for a Day" and telling a story to beat them all. Of the other contestants waiting to go on the show, Gowdy writes, "Either they were world class impostors, every one of them, or [Doris] shouldn't be there. She joined the line anyway. A long wait on hot pavement during which she thought of the men on the Titanic who had dressed up in turbans and fake stoles and too-small pointy high heels ..."

Gowdy isn't a faker like Doris. She genuinely seems to see the world in deeply weird terms that she takes on faith. But that doesn't stop her brand of weirdness from veering perilously close to the John Irving variety, lying in wait to spring its conventional meaning on us. It's a crookedly stitched sampler proclaiming, to borrow a phrase from Inspector Clouseau, "It's all a part of life's rich pageant." --Charles Taylor

The Barnes & Noble Review
First published in 1995, Mister Sandman is a fine specimen of Gowdyism: an idiosyncratic amalgam of the fantastic and everyday shot through with dark but kindly humor. Here are the members of the Canary family of Toronto in 1956: Gordon, a gentle beanpole of a man who recently found love, as he thought, with a maintenance man ("an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic"); Doris, his tubby wife, a compulsive and gifted liar in love with Harmony La Londe ("a lesbian Negro career woman who wore see-through negligees and had painted her apartment to match her parrot"); Sonja, the couple's even tubbier 15-year-old daughter, sweet, a trifle dim, and -- whoops -- pregnant by her father's lover; Marcy, a kindergartener and nascent nymphomaniac; and Joan, Sonja's newborn, heard to scream, "Oh, no, not again!" at birth -- after which she was dropped on her head and never spoke another word. Mute, beautiful, and forever tiny, Joan, it emerges, is a musical genius and the mysterious center of this menagerie and the story. Gowdy's writing is an intoxicating mixture of homely expression and brilliantly surreal characterization ("the car didn't have a scratch and it cruised along as smoothly and quietly as a car sailing over a cliff"). The story darts ahead and back, appearing from all points of view, bringing us closer and closer to its denouement, which, bizarre though it truly is, amounts to a celebration of love. --Katherine A. Powers
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781581952261
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 6/3/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,012,548
  • Product dimensions: 8.52 (w) x 5.48 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Gowdy is the award-winning author of six novels and the short story collection We So Seldom Look on Love. Her works have appeared to critical acclaim in thirteen countries, and in her native Canada, Mister Sandman was a finalist for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award.
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Table of Contents

"Mister Sandman displays the same quirkiness, the same mordant sense of humor, the same ear for vernacular, the same innocent-eyed acceptance of the bizarre, that characterizes Gowdy's two previous books.... She surprises and delights; she also -- which is rarer -- gives us moments which are at the same time preposterous and strangely moving." --Margaret Atwood

Barbara Gowdy's outrageous, hilarious, and compassionate novel is about the Canary family: their loves and quirks, their secret lives and histories. The youngest daughter, Joan, holds the darkest secret. Without ever taking a single lesson, Joan sits down at the piano and plays like Mozart. She's a prodigy! She is also mute.

Joan is a mystery, and in the novel's startling climax, her family realizes that each of them is as marvelous and as much of a mystery as Joan, as irreducible as the mystery of their existence. Mister Sandman attains the heightened quality of a modern-day parable with its compassionate investigation of moral truths and its bold embrace of the eccentricities of each character. Readers will put the book down and see their world in a rosier light -- a good reason to pick it up.

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First Chapter

Chapter One


    Joan Canary was the Reincarnation Baby. Big news at the time, at least in the Vancouver papers. This is going back, 1956. Joan was that newborn who supposedly screamed, "Oh, no, not again!" at a pitch so shrill that one of the old women attending the birth clawed out her hearing aid. The other old woman fainted. She was the one who grabbed the umbilical cord and pulled Joan head-first onto the floor.

    Joan's mother, Doris Canary, attributed everything to the brain damage. Joan's inability to talk it goes without saying, but also her reclusiveness, her sensitivity to light, her size, her colouring ... you name it. Joan's real mother, Sonja Canary, attributed everything to Joan's past-life experiences. Sonja was there for Joan's famous first cry, and it's true she had thought it was one of the old women screaming, "Flo! Flo! She's insane!" but that didn't make any sense because the woman who could have screamed it had throat cancer. If Joan was either brain-damaged or reincarnated, Sonja preferred reincarnated. She would, being the real mother.

    To be fair, though, there was something unearthly about Joan. She was born with those pale green eyes, and the hair on her head, when it finally grew in, was like milkweed tuft. That fine, that white. And look how tiny she was! Nobody in the family was tiny. Nobody in the family was anything like her, her real parents least of all. Sonja was fat, and had dark brown corkscrew hair and brown eyes. The real father was an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic. He had remarkably white skin, and Joan did, too, but without the freckles, pimples and hair. Flawless. Joan was flawless. Another way of saying not like any of them. Sonja, of course, went further, she said that Joan was not of this world, and it drove Doris Canary crazy. Baloney! Doris said. Brain-damaged, brain-damaged, brain-damaged! she said. Face it. Ask the neurologists.

    Doris even told strangers that Joan was brain-damaged. Her husband, Gordon, never publicly contradicted her but he winced and sighed. "It's the truth," Doris would say then, as if normally she wasn't a brazen liar. As if Gordon had ever agreed with the brain-damaged diagnosis let alone that you could point to anything and call it the truth. "The truth is only a version" was one of his maxims.

    Which Sonja heard as "The truth is only aversion" and, although she had no idea what it meant, automatically quoted whenever the subject of truth was raised.

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Interviews & Essays

On Sunday, March 22nd, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Barbara Gowdy to discuss MISTER SANDMAN.


Moderator: Hello, Barbara Gowdy. We are pleased you could join us to discuss MISTER SANDMAN! Welcome.

Barbara Gowdy: Thank you.


Kate from New York City: Hello, Barbara Gowdy! I just tried to explain this novel to my girlfriend and found it very difficult because there's so much there! This is not a criticism. In your own words, I'd like to hear your explanation of what MISTER SANDMAN is about. Thanks!

Barbara Gowdy: It might help to read the jacket copy. It is about a lot of things, mostly it is about human nature, an investigation about what is normal in a family.


Carrie from Bolton, MA: Reincarnation is a big theme in MISTER SANDMAN, as Joan's character is seen as a reincarnation, and certain signs are interpreted by her, Doris, and Sonja as a sign of this reincarnation. Could you talk a little bit about reincarnation and Joan's revelations resulting in the renewal of her own family?

Barbara Gowdy: I suppose to me reincarnation is a fact of life in that throughout life we reinvent ourselves and we come to have a new understanding of others, which is a kind of reincarnation of observation.


Betty from New York City: MISTER SANDMAN was published in hardcover -- to much critical acclaim -- by Steerforth Press. Could you talk about the experience of being published by a small independent press? Do you think independent presses will become the way of the future, with publishers like Grove/Atlantic publishing such award-winning bestsellers as COLD MOUNTAIN?

Barbara Gowdy: I don't know. I fear for small publishers, because their books don't get much shelf space when the big blockbuster biographies and books by big-name celebrities come out. Small presses tend to publish literary fiction, which has a relatively small audience. What Steerforth did for me was give me a great deal of attention and care.


Marion from Toronto: What is your writing schedule like? How long did it take you to write MISTER SANDMAN? How many drafts did you go through?

Barbara Gowdy: I tend to write five hours a day, four days a week once I start a book. The rest of the workday is taken up by the business of being a writer. Between books I am obliged to devote myself to publicity and reading tours around the world. I would like to get to the point where I didn't have to do any publicity but I am not there yet. MISTER SANDMAN, like my other books, was written slowly in one draft, but each day I rewrote what I had written up until then.


Christina Waage from Boston: Your characters' sexuality seems to be a big issue in MISTER SANDMAN. I was particularly intrigued that the Canary parents Gordon and Doris, homosexual and bisexual respectively, were actually happy in that situation and were wonderful parents. Alternative family lifestyles were alive and well in the '50s! Why did you decide to focus on the Canary family's sexuality?

Barbara Gowdy: Alternative family lifestyles were alive but not at all well in the '50s. In fact it was against the law to be a practicing homosexual. Writing about a kind of sexuality that is not mainstream enables me to write about living on the edge.


Karen from Alexandria, VA: Could you give us a little hint of what your next novel will be about?

Barbara Gowdy: Yes, it will be published by Metropolitan in the U.S., which is an imprint of Henry Holt. It should be coming out in the spring of '99 and called the WHITE BONE. it is a story of the search for safety told from the point of view of African elephants.


Jennifer from Long Island: Music and lyrics play a big role in MISTER SANDMAN. What music do you like to listen to, Ms. Gowdy?

Barbara Gowdy: I am currently listening to classical -- Mozart, Schubert, and Bach, and jazz Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, but I don't listen to music at all when I am writing because I find it distracting. I did study music for many years, which I suppose is why it creeps into my fiction.


Jack Meador from Montpelier, Vermont: Hello Ms. Gowdy. I have to say I will honestly never listen to MISTER SANDMAN the same way again after reading this novel. Why was that particular song featured so prominently in your novel?

Barbara Gowdy: Because when I was a little girl it was my favorite song, and I thought that the lyrics were "Mr. Sandman bring me a drink."


Corrine Arleth from San Francisco: Your narrative voice seems to have such knowledge of children -- their secrets, their dreams, and so on. How difficult was it to get into a child's mindframe while you were writing MISTER SANDMAN?

Barbara Gowdy: It is always very easy to write from the point of view of a child. I don't know what that means except that perhaps I live more in the past than in the present. I have no children of my own, and that may be why I find them so fascinating.


Justine from California: What do you think of critics who compare you to John Irving and Alice Munroe? Thank you for taking my question.

Barbara Gowdy: You're welcome. Thank you for asking. I am flattered by most comparisons. On the other hand, I rarely understand the comparisons. I think it is like when someone says you look like someone else. You see it and you don't.


Aimee from Seattle: Who do you like to read? Who are your literary influences?

Barbara Gowdy: Everything I have read has influenced me, including cereal boxes and billboards, but I know that is not what you mean. I think I was very much influenced by the Bible and fairy stories. As for writers I admire -- there are too many to mention really, but I will say I am in awe of Alice Munroe, Cormac MacCarthy especially his olders works, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and America's own Lorrie Moore.


Yolanda from Albuquerque: How important is humor to you in your writing? Do you mean to be intentionally funny or does it just happen? I laughed out loud reading MISTER SANDMAN.

Barbara Gowdy: I am glad you laughed out loud. I laugh when I am writing. The funny stuff, if it is funny, comes out of nowhere. I don't believe a writer is truly telling an honest story if she excludes the absurdities of life. Unfortunately, humor isn't considered "literary" in many circles, but I can live with that.


Jacqueline from Pittsburgh: Will there be a movie version of MISTER SANDMAN? Is there anything in the works?

Barbara Gowdy: The movie rights have been optioned, and I hope it will become a movie -- although I think the character of Joan will be a hard one to put on the screen.


Moderator: Thank you for fielding all of our questions this afternoon, Ms. Gowdy. Any final comments for our online audience?

Barbara Gowdy: Thank you for reading the book with such obvious attention to theme and detail; you hearten me. Now back to the THE WHITE BONE which I am rewriting.


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