Barbara Gowdy,
Mister Sandman
(Somerville House, 1995;
Steerforth Press, 1996)

Barbara Gowdy's quirky novel Mister Sandman features a cluster of original and off-kilter characters who are intriguing if not entirely lovable. Set in Toronto mainly in the '60s and early '70s, it is a tale of magic realism set on its ear.

Joan Canary is an enigma. A freakish accident at her birth supposedly left her brain-damaged, and certainly that diagnosis seems to be borne out by her stunted growth, her silence except for the sounds that she mimics, and her penchant for hiding in her bedroom closet. But there is more to Joan than meets the eye, and while no one in her family can say why, they sense this as well.

Joan's birth mother is a single teenager, Sonja, and it is the machinations through which Sonja's mother, Doris, takes the family to have the baby born out of town which leads to Joan's condition. She is raised by Doris and her husband, Gordon, as their daughter and as a sister to Sonja and their other daughter Marcy, six years older than Joan.

To everyone's surprise, Joan suddenly starts playing the piano by ear at the age of 6, and her ability adds to the puzzle. In a way, though, her music is what sets her on the path to giving her family what they need: a cohesive sense of family.

The Canary family could easily be described as dysfunctional as each leads a life secret to each other. Joan, as common denominator, unites them through a complicated project which has at its heart the very simple but powerful emotion of unconditional love.

Gowdy is a remarkable writer, creating realistic characters whose flaws may be distasteful but who are as real as the person next door -- or in the next room. The reader may not particularly like the Canary family but the characters' ultimate development is convincing and satisfying.

Gowdy grabs your attention and refuses to let go, her complex artistry of plot and characterization pulling you from page to page. She is a writer unafraid to explore beyond the box, and her tale is at once realistic and magical, combining the two styles in a startling way that is compelling and authentic.

Mister Sandman may not bring you the dream for which you long, but it will undeniably stay with you and whet your appetite for more works by this Canadian author.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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