The Glass Harmonica

By Russell Wangersky

Newfoundland author Russell Wangersky goes behind the picturesque facade of the brightly coloured clapboard houses in a working-class St. John’s neighbourhood in this fractured tale of violence, obsession, and dirty secrets.

McKay Street is a typical modern, high-density residential area, with no real sense of community but an abiding suspiciousness that complements voyeuristic tendencies freely indulged behind drapes and darkened windows. The homes are numbered cells echoing the structure of the other addresses in the novel, government institutions like the hospital and penitentiary. The characters feel trapped by family, heredity, and place, and, consciously or not, seem always to be under a form of surveillance.

The secret history of McKay Street goes back nearly forty years, and Wangersky skips back and forth in time, and from address to address, as he fills it in. The characters in the drama watch each other, spying isn’t too strong a word, but rarely connect. In fact they seem to only become more isolated as time goes by. A woman is silenced by a stroke. A young man is quietly shuffled off to prison. A nosey old lady is sent to a retirement home where she talks away without anyone listening to a thing she says.

Wangersky does a good job evoking McKay Street’s lived-in feel – the way passing headlights shining over a set of drapes bring furniture to life and set them moving across a wall, or “the kind of night when the air hangs still and wet, like sweaty clothing” – but he doesn’t always make an effective use of voice to give the locals distinct personalities. Too often they seem drawn upon to simply do their bit in fitting another piece in the puzzle, then let go. The most engaging and interesting character, a traveling sales representative for a snack food company crippled when his vehicle collides with a moose, is also the most tangential to the plot.

What is impressive, however, is Wangersky’s decision not to sentimentalize these people or where and how they live. McKay Street is frankly depicted as a hostile, dangerous environment of lousy weather, economic hardship, and random violence. The one “come-from-away” character we meet is brutally murdered. The closest thing in the novel to a hero is a young man who finally decides to break with the past, sell his parents’ house, and move to British Columbia (that is, as far away as he can get). The people we meet all seem tainted somehow by their environment, victims of a naturalistic experiment conducted without any special pleading or sign of attachment for the home team.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, June 2010.

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