THE COMMUNIST'S DAUGHTER by Dennis Bock (HarperCollins), 326 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
A rich re-envisioning of the life of Dr. Norman Bethune, The Communist's Daughter is another triumph from Guelph author Dennis Bock.
It's an epistolary novel based on the fictional premise that Bethune fathered a child after a brief affair with an alleged spy in 1937 Madrid. Bethune's letters to the daughter he's never seen, penned in the few hours when he's not sewing up China's battle-weary, contain the passionate, insightful and manic observations of his front-line life.
Bock prefers strong storytelling to a firm commitment to historical accuracy. Reading the novel, it's very easy to confuse the text for fact, so believable are Bethune's anxieties, guilty memories and complexities.
The novel opens in northern China during the Japanese invasion and paints Bethune as a tireless hero. He worked without a qualified staff for 14-hour days, tending to the needs of the wounded.
He recalls his childhood in Ontario, the son of a tyrannical minister, his tumultuous time in Spain during the Civil War and his biggest regret - leaving his unborn child behind.
Bock's reflections on Bethune's past, in particular the moments he's not proud of, are vivid and haunting. There was the voyage to China, when the doctor masterfully manipulated a co-worker, and as a young teacher, he brazenly punched a student in a malicious fistfight - acts he defended with incredible self-righteousness.
This is a portrait of a flawed and complicated man, an odd mixture of narcissism and generosity. Bock's Bethune is an impatient, judgmental pragmatist, more committed to his political ideas than to human kindness.
These moments of admitted failure, reflection and regret are most telling, and the occasion for the best of Bock's writing.
INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF AUTHORS Readings, interviews, discussions, award presentations and special events. October 18-28 at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West). $15, McClelland & Stewart and Giller Prize readings $25, director's circle package for two to M&S, Giller and Governor General's finalist readings $250 (includes books), Young IFOA stu free. Pen Canada Benefit October 20 (Convocation Hall, $20-$175, 416-978-8849, www.uofttix.ca). 416-973-4000, www.readings.org.