Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Character development seamless in first novel

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In true literary-fiction style, this locally written novel shies away from plot. It depends instead on seamless backstory episodes for its skilful development of character.

The result is a disturbing yet moving tribute to the ease at which the human mind selectively remembers its past.

Author Faith Johnston, a retired teacher, is already known in Winnipeg writing circles for her 2006 biography, A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen, which won several honours, including the 2007 McNally Robinson book of the year award.

The Only Man in the World is her first novel. In it, grown woman with children of her own, Heather is confronted with the imminent death of a once-revered uncle.

But the uncle she idolized as a young child and then as a teenager has fallen from grace. The fall is a result, in part, of his alcoholism, and in part because of Heather's own unrealistic youthful expectations.

And now, as Uncle George wastes away before her eyes, his plunge from hero to mere human leaves Heather grieving for what could have been.

The musings trigger a recalling of her life, first with her long-dead father, then with a shadowy ex-husband and finally, with a more recent, more quantifiable spouse.

There is a sameness that permeates the novel. Like the Prairie landscape, the story unfolds in a flat, unaccented manner. The highs, the lows, the in-betweens, are all treated with a kind of controlled emphasis.

At times, it is like sitting alone with a dear old friend who has stories to tell, but a long and wearisome way of telling them.

That said, the present verb tense used throughout seems to be a very deliberate, and overall successful, attempt to balance the restrained rhythm, and the reader is compelled to push through to the end.

Johnston's biography indicates a past of living in the various locales mentioned throughout the pages. Indeed, the minutiae in the glimpses of Ottawa, Montreal and Paris indicate a familiarity with the uniqueness of these urban locales.

The details contrast nicely with the panoramic landscapes of Winnipeg and Regina, and suggest a vague but palpable desire on Heather's part to be right here on the vast prairie: "Why don't you move to Vancouver? her friends sometimes ask, but she knows she never will. Everyone needs a home base and Winnipeg is hers."

Ultimately though, the only man, that titular character, becomes lost in the vastness. As Heather takes us from one seemingly unconnected incident to the next from her past, we find ourselves wanting to know which of the men she writes about is indeed the only man in the world.

But perhaps that is the point. He is all of them.

For readers who prefer the destination to the travel, those who refuse to take the time to see the miniature roses blooming along the deserted highway, this book will likely not suffice.

But for those for whom the journey itself is a thing of joy, The Only Man in the World will satisfy at the moment of reading and will linger long afterward.

Angela Narth is a Winnipeg writer and literary reviewer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J8


Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:29 PM CDT: adds fact box

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