One bustling city (Montreal), two ambitious artists (a dancer and a photographer), at least three cataclysmic events, four or more turns for the worse and countless bursts of ambition: Serafim and Claire is packed to bursting.
Following 2011's Believing Cedric, Montreal writer Mark Lavorato's third novel is designed to please an audience hungry for historical fare in the vein of The Chaperone and The Paris Wife. Brimming with the accessories of the flapper scene -- bobs, streetcars and flashbulbs -- Serafim is a peppy Canadian take on the roaring '20s.
Claire is an ambitious dancer building a reputation on Montreal's vaudeville stages; Serafim is a Portuguese immigrant experimenting in street photography. While Claire slowly comes to the realization that, in showbiz, talent and the will to succeed can only get you so far, Serafim is forced to accept that, in journalism, candid photography is not yet la mode. When the duo realizes collaboration might mean success, events take a dramatic turn.
Serafim is lively with the kind of colour that sets up fresh-faced historical novels for The Great Gatsby-style cinematic treatment.
And there's a sort of brave gusto in Lavorato's reach -- Serafim dives headlong into a bewildering array of issues beyond the artistic, from abortion and prostitution to politics and religion, all of them rooted in the context of a precarious, postwar, post-Depression Quebec.
In that sense, Serafim carves out a kind of historical research space for itself, offering a unique take on the immigrant experience and a glimpse behind the curtain into Quebec's shifting political and sexual moral landscape.
Often, however, Serafim's open promotion of rather tediously conventional liberal ideals distracts from its core of human drama. In a historical novel, every non-conformist political position must be problematized. Serafim sells itself short with a shallow feminism that signs off on suffragette themes without ever really exploring its female characters' motivations on emotional or spiritual levels.
We're treated to the visual aspect of the scene at almost every opportunity, with every costume and expression described in fulsome detail: "She would watch them leap to their feet beyond the glare of the spotlight, a flower sometimes thrown into its white beam in a high, soft arc, landing on the stage without a sound."
Several serious, emotional plot points, however, are not given the attention they deserve. For instance, a key scene involves (astonishingly brutal) gang rape, the psychological ramifications of which are left virtually unexplored -- unless you count the victim's worry about a resulting scar, "that unsightly lightning bolt of pink that cascaded from her navel and pointed into her hairline."
Other pesky problems plague Serafim, from foreshadowing ("In years to come Claire would remember this moment as a time in her life when things were still simple") to over-explanation ("This was his way of touching on the topic of the ethereal, of the hereafter and providence").
But every now and then Lavorato balances the present, visceral moment with deep subtext, and what results is great, even beautiful writing: "He wanted to feel the wings of freedom and adventure, the release of his burdens and disgrace, the quickening air of his plunge from the treetop. But all he really felt was the cold of the metal in his hands, and the clothes on his back."
Buried as they are, these moments are worth finding in Serafim and Claire.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.