THE BOYS, OR, WAITING FOR THE ELECTRICIAN'S DAUGHTER by John Terpstra (Gaspereau), 160 pages, $25.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I wanted to love this book. short- listed for the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, The Boys, by Hamilton, Ontario, poet John Terpstra, is a beautifully bound work of art. The cover design is stark and stunning, the title is catching and insistent, and the narrative flows over the richly textured stock in numbered vignettes, 213 in all.
But I didn't. I loved moments, fragments, suggestions - everything, really, but the missing emotional gravity.
The Boys is a memoir bearing witness to the lives of the author's wife's brothers Neil, Paul and Eric, all afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Terpstra focuses on the final year of the boys' lives, 1978, when the late-teens/early-20s trio died within six months of one another.
A lovely mesh of texts - poems, notes, anecdotes, ruminations and meditations that bridge past and present - The Boys opens with a richly enigmatic evocation of beginnings. Terpstra meets the brothers when he and the electrician's daughter are college students just four months into their romantic rapture.
Despite this vivid tapestry of language, Terpstra never conveys the emotional intricacies the subject matter demands. Instead, his voice is largely detached as it moves through the routine: awkward family dinners, the boys' imaginative antics and living room games, their successive hospitalizations.
While Terpstra's surprise that others would call the situation tragic is a boldly refreshing rewrite of restrictive cultural narratives around life and death, the book's lack of emotional presence feels somewhat dishonest, and his journey into this past becomes not so much a memoir as a systematic exercise in event recall.
Still, Terpstra's is a brave foray and worth the read.
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