By Claudia Dey
Stunt, the debut novel from Toronto playwright and Globe and Mail columnist Claudia Dey, is a surprising book on two counts. In the first place because of the originality of its style and vision, and in the second because of how well it all works.
The story itself is nothing special, being a traditional quest narrative with borrowings from what have become the conventions of magic realism. In outline, nine year-old Eugenia “Stunt” Ledoux wakes up one morning to find that her father, painter Sheb Wooly Ledoux, has abandoned his family, which consists of Eugenia, mother Mink, and sister Immaculata. All of the characters in the book have these kind of odd names, reflecting the fact that they are odd people. I. I. Finbar Me the Three, for example, is a retired tight-rope walker who might hold the key to Sheb’s disappearance. The novel follows Eugenia as she sets out to find Finbar and discover what happened to her dad, who the police are also looking for after he apparently blew up a factory.
In addition to the colorful cast the plot also includes surreal elements like Sheb’s postcards from outer space and the two sisters aging ten years in an instant. But what makes Stunt really stand out is its unconventional handling. In the first place there is the voice. At first it seems curious that a novel by a dramatist should be so free of dialogue, but in fact the whole performance is a kind of monologue. Eugenia addresses her absent father directly throughout as “you,” and describes the events in the present tense as immediately perceived (“I am sitting on our front stoop now.”). This gives the writing an attention-grabbing energy, as though the reader is party to a long, albeit one-sided conversation.
The other aspect of Dey’s style that is striking is its emphasis on metaphor. Metaphor is a kind of magic, turning things into what they are not by asserting an identity. The trick is to make it both new and interesting, to present the identity as both inspired and obvious. And while some of Dey’s images remain obscure, most of them work. “The child is a fresh ballet.” A man’s diseased lungs “are a shoreline that has never been raked.” “My mind is mice scrambling across floorboards.” Lake Ontario is “a smooth wet planet” and the Gardiner Expressway “a concrete comet.” “The sky is the blade of an axe.” Whole passages come to life in this way:
Your stray cats climb out of the dark and into my arms. Their bodies beat warm in my hands, their hearts striving, bombs in their chests. Tails curl up into ties around my neck, bracelets around my wrists. They are a coat that flexes.
Almost every page flexes with this same warm imaginative heat. Even a dog pants “like the other end of an obscene phone call.” Eugenia’s voice is rich with such connections, and the book as a whole is impressive in how steadily it walks its own daring tightrope of language and feeling. Such a unique, experimental work could have easily taken a fall. Remarkably, Dey never loses balance.
Review first published August 9, 2008.