Mister Sandmanby Barbara Gowdy
One of the most audacious and talked-about novels of the season, "Mister Sandman" is set in Toronto in the mid-1950s and concerns the Canary family: their immoderate passions and eccentricities and their secret lives. 288 pp. Author tour. National ads.
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
“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
- Steerforth Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.26(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an Excerpt
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.)
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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