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Barbed satire nicely skewers Canadian political life

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Sussex Drive

By Linda Svendsen

Random House Canada, 352 pages, $22

LINDA Svendsen's first and only previous book, a collection of related short stories called Marine Life, drew rave reviews. That was way back in 1992.

Since then, Svendsen, a UBC professor of creative writing, has written mostly for television, and now she suddenly reappears on the CanLit scene with her first novel, a barbed satire that nicely skewers Canadian political life, as well as the family life of our leaders.

It makes Canadian politics so entertaining, it belongs on the same shelf as Terry Fallis's 2008 Leacock Award winner, The Best Laid Plans

Sussex Drive begins as a comedy (Doc, the PM's director of communications, refers to ArtsCAN! as "ArtSCAM!" and to the CBC as the "Communist Broadcasting Corpse." The PM's wife has a Paris kimono that is "a gift she'd received with matching gown (and silk thong!) from President Sarkozy's wife"). It soon turns into a fast-paced melodrama with James-Bond-like intrigue.

The year is 2008 and the two main protagonists are Lise Lavoie, Governor General, and Becky Leggatt, wife of Conservative Prime Minister Greg Leggatt.

Svendsen presents the narrative through the alternating viewpoints of Lise and Becky.

Lise and her actor husband Rene resemble former G-G Michaëlle Jean and her filmmaker husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, but instead of coming from Haiti, Lise is an emigrant from the fictional African country of St. Bertrand.

Some of the conflict in the novel concerns Rene's perceived links to separatism and Lise's ties to the deposed president of St. Bernard, who was replaced by someone supported by Leggatt and U.S. President George W. Bush.

Since most Canadians know little about Stephen Harper's wife, Laureen, it is difficult to say if the feisty Becky resembles her. In other words, divorced redhead Becky may be mostly Svendsen's creation. She at times carries out surreptitious activities more or less assigned to her by her husband or by the PM's aides, but nothing is more worrisome than a development in her own family: her 18-year-old daughter has been made pregnant by RCMP corporal Taylor Shymanski.

As if that isn't troubling enough, Shymanski is linked to shady dealings involving Canada's forces in Afghanistan.

Leggatt may be balding, but his mannerisms and ways of dealing with issues would seem to resemble those of the luxuriantly follicled Harper. To amuse himself, Leggatt composes song lyrics that put down women.

He would do anything to stay in power, and one of the central plot lines concerns a move by the opposition parties to form a coalition and oust his minority government.

Lise, like Michaëlle Jean in real life, must grapple with the PM's request to prorogue Parliament. Through machinations domestic, national and international, Leggatt gradually emerges as the villain.

Many real people make an appearance -- Barack and Michelle Obama, for instance -- though Queen Elizabeth has abdicated in favour of Charles, whose environmental policies have made him known as the Green King. After becoming president, Obama visits Canada for three hours, getting the "Ottawa for Dummies" tour.

Svendsen delivers her lively yarn is a breezy, savvy style. Some of Lise's dialogue is in French, and it's appropriate that Svendsen offers no translation, making the novel all the more authentically Canadian. But Canadian politics has never been as exciting -- and as rollickingly funny -- as it is in Sussex Drive.

Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson's latest work is a comic novel called Dating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J9

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