EXILE by Ann Ireland (Dundurn), 298 pages, $34.99 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Ann Ireland has an excellent nugget of an idea in Exile, her portrait of a profoundly alienated Latin American political refugee. But she doesn't quite polish it up.Poet Carlos Romero Esteves is hiding out, filthy and afraid, in his sister's basement somewhere in Latin America when the Canadian Alliance for Freedom of Expression (CAFE) arranges a writer-in-exile residency for him at the University of British Columbia. He arrives on the western edge of this continent hopeful of a little hero worship and in a hopeless state of culture shock.
He smokes too much, wants his beef and, while running up a terrifying tab at the student pub, comes on a little too strong to the female students. Soon his stipend is on the verge of running out and so is his sponsor's goodwill.
Ireland's clear prose creates a vivid character in the flawed figure of Carlos. Yet there are nuances, too. His sexuality is complex, often compromised when he's feeling socially or politically insecure. He may even have become his government's enemy by hitting on the wrong woman, and may not be the political renegade CAFE assumes.
And Ireland has deep insight into the lives of exiles. An episode in which political refugees participating in a global conference talk frankly about their host countries' obsession with torture and lack of interest in their writing is mind-bending.
If only the author had resisted the urge to let her protagonist flirt with redemption in the end, this book would have been a lot better. It's as if Ireland couldn't leave Carlos in the basement of the house in Chinatown, because that would have made the book too short, too pointed.
By trying to do too much -- and refusing the smaller scale -- Ireland loses control of the narrative and it sort of fades away.
Which is a drag. This good book, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, could have been great.