THE WESTERN LIGHT by Susan Swan (Cormorant), 332 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Write what you know. Okay, it's a cliché, but it proves true in veteran novelist Susan Swan's compelling story about a small-town doctor and his affection-starved daughter, Mary.
Like protagonist Morley, Mary's father, Swan's dad was a doctor in small-town Ontario who, via phone, talked a lighthouse keeper through an operation that saved his son's life.
But where Swan's experience speaks most tellingly is in The Western Light's vivid evocation of life in the 50s and its essential signifiers: the clothes, the hair, the telephone party lines and the all-out hate-on between fans of the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mary's a survivor of polio - another 50s phenomenon - and talks to her leg brace, which she calls Hindrance. She and her family, including Aunt Louisa (Mary's mother died when she was young), live in Madoc's Landing near Georgian Bay, on the perimeter of the town's psychiatric hospital.
When former Detroit Red Wings hockey star John Pilkie, convicted of killing his wife and daughter, is transferred to the institution, the town develops a love-hate relationship with the mercurial athlete. Some say he's a cold-hearted killer; others can't resist his celebrity and charisma, especially Mary, who has a major crush on him.
Morley, who once helped save Pilkie's life when his family was trapped in a lighthouse, believes he's mentally ill due to head injuries he suffered playing hockey. He's promised to appeal his case to the authorities, but he's too busy caring for his patients to follow through.
The good doctor's time management problems have a deep effect on Mary, too. In fact, though Pilkie's a central character, the main emotional through line involves her perpetual disappointment in an absent father, a narrative thread Swan pulls to a satisfying conclusion.
With its focus on winter in northern towns, pre-medicare medicine, hockey and the very relevant issue of concussions among professional athletes, Swan has added another gem to the Canadian canon.
Swan reads from The Western Light Thursday September 27 at the Toronto Reference Library and launches the book in conversation with sports writer Bob Duff at Annex Live, Wednesday (August 29). See listing.
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