ALMS by Cynthia Macdonald (Penguin), 373 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN
I smell a trend here - good first fiction from high-profile commentators. It began when Globe and Mail theatre critic Kate Taylor released her excellent Madame Proust And The Kosher Kitchen and continues with Alms, by Cynthia Macdonald of TVO's Imprint. Credit these women for nerve. They're not the kind of authors who slip under the radar - if the work is bad, it's gonna get creamed. That won't happen here. Macdonald has come up with an intriguing tale set in the 80s, about Martine, a privileged young girl who flees her Moore Park home for self-imposed poverty in a downtown basement apartment. She's always wanted to do good deeds. And when she meets Father Kearney in the hotel where she's working as a chambermaid, she gets her chance.
Kearney runs a cut-rate bistro café catering to the underclasses. But something else may be going on, too, and why does he keep behaving in very un-priestlike ways? Those questions give the plot its drive as Martine does her fish-out-of-water thing.
This creditable first fiction has a lot going for it, in particular its T.O. setting, sense of mystery and well-drawn characters. But it's overwritten in places. A person doesn't just look like a rock, he's an anthropomorphic rock. The cherry filling in a danish can't just look like the bloodied eye of a cyclops, it's got to be a terrible-looking bloodied eye of a cyclops.
The number of strained metaphors gives you the sense that Macdonald mistrusts her instincts and has to keep proclaiming, "I'm a writer, I'm a writer."
Thing is, she is. So she should keep it a little simpler next time. And this is an author who deserves a next time.
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