THE EMPEROR OF PARIS by C.S. Richardson (Doubleday), 278 pages, $25 paper. Rating: NNNN
It takes time to settle into C.S. Richardson's inventive second novel, which tells a relatively simple love story in an ambitiously convoluted way.
Set in Paris in the early 1900s, it jumps between the lives of an illiterate baker and his Great War-damaged father, a young art- and book-obsessed woman with a terrible scar, a Swiss painter struggling to get by, a lonely bookseller down by the quay, a near-blind watchmaker, plus a smattering of others.
Mystifyingly, though, Richardson, an illustrious Toronto-based book designer whose first novel, 2007's The End Of The Alphabet, was a wild success, in most cases gives us their parents' stories first. The one about the baker's father - the thinnest baker in Paris - dominates the book's first half. Further complicating matters is a present-tense narrative that constantly disrupts the decades-jumping past-tense ones.
It's not until 100 pages in that you finally begin to glean where (and with which characters) the heart of the story really lies. Despite Richardson's beautiful, economical writing, touches of magic realism and genius at building rich and alluring tableaux of day-to-day life in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, you'd be forgiven for giving up before that point.
But that would be a mistake. By the halfway mark, the theme of literature and art's saving powers takes shape, and connections between characters and storylines come fast and furious, delivering immense satisfaction and making it clear why The Emperor Of Paris snagged a spot on the Giller Prize long list.
C.S. Richardson reads with James Clarke, Max Layton, Beatrice MacNeil and Irvine Welsh on October 28.