David Plante has learned what the classics of Western literature have to teach: the great plots are simple, austere, and have to do with fundamentals, with blood, procreation, and death. He knows, too, what the best of the moderns have shown: if one knows one’s characters sufficiently well and feels one’s theme deeply, plot, as such, is not necessary. The Country lacks plot in the traditional sense, but it achieves unity through deeply felt conviction as it explores a family painfully growing together and apart and dealing with the death of a parent. Like most families, Daniel and his parents and six brothers hold together on tenuous threads of half-truths, skirting certain realities, certain hurts in favor of the conventions.
At his father’s wake, Daniel thinks of his father and his French Canadian relatives: “They were people who saw that they were born in darkness and would die in darkness, and who accepted that.” He thinks also of his father’s religion, his Canuck God: “It was a religion, not of recourse, but stark truth: death is what we live for, and as terrible as it is, to die is better than to live.” He comes to realize his own mortality.
The Country is Plante’s seventh novel, and, despite the honors paid The Family (1978), it may be his best. The style, as befits a book about age and loss and the terrible, slow deterioration of lifelong familial habit, is restrained, even subdued. The structure severely limits what the reader knows, but reveals all that is pertinent. Plante has rigorously limited his concerns to a father, a mother, and their seven sons. In Part I, Daniel comes home twice from London to see his parents; Plante tells nothing of Daniel’s life in London except that he is a writer. Part II flashes back some twenty years to a family outing at a country house which the sons bought for their parents after Jim lost his job. Part III details Daniel’s visit home after his father’s death.
Some of the brothers have wives and children, and a few words suffice to establish their reality. Jim has a sister, Oenone, and a single detail makes her memorable: she wears a neat hairpiece, under which her own white hair straggles wildly. Mère has a younger sister, who is seen bearing Communion to her sister and brother-in-law. The brothers themselves are distinct, but, in keeping with the classical spirit of the book, Plante has sought to define their species, not particularize them minutely. The reader is likely to be surprised at how little he really knows of them, for they do not appear flat.
Plante’s characters are chiefly significant for their roles in the family drama. What particulars Plante tells of their professions or habits of mind serve that larger purpose. Even Daniel lacks substance, ceases to exist, when not among his family. On one occasion, he intends to write someone in London, but the person is never named. The drama itself is quiet; characters move about aimlessly, saying the things people say to one another when they are thrust into intimacy and have nothing much to say. The sons promise one another visits and renewed intimacy, and each retains his own private sense of their parents. Never does Plante write “our parents”; always, it is “my parents,” or “Richard’s mother,” or “Julien’s father.”
The Country consists largely of Daniel’s perceptions of his family, and it is almost wholly devoid of explanations. In Part II (the flashback), Daniel narrates but is practically invisible. He is often not physically present during conversations between various members of the family. With Julien, he works to move a large fallen tree to the yard of the country house, while the parents and their other sons discuss whether to remain in the country or return to the city. Later, he carves a face on the tree. The narrator remains largely outside the conflict between the sons who wish to reestablish the family by spending time together in the country and the parents, who insist that lack of electricity will make the weekend inconvenient. The sons perceive, rightly, that their father does not want the family together. They fail to understand that the father’s “failure,” his loss of his job, had altered everything for him and his wife. That remains unsaid.
Such detachment of narration, appropriate as it is, may have arisen from...
(The entire section is 1795 words.)