Author Dennison Smith uses her skills honed as a poet, playwright, novelist and actor to evoke vivid images of the forces of history that buffet The Eye of the Day's two main characters, pushing them continents apart and bringing them together again.
Now a Canadian, Smith, who grew up in Vermont, currently divides her time between an island in British Columbia and Norwich, England, where she's pursuing a PhD in English. The Eye of the Day, her second novel, comes out Tuesday.
A singular moment in rural Vermont in the early 1930s cements a bond between the two unlikely characters; that event, an explosion, leaves Amos, a local handyman, badly disfigured.
Townspeople reject him, treating him as a Quasimodo-type figure. He eventually finds occasional work with a family of wealthy cottage owners that comes up from Princeton to spend languid summers on the nearby lake.
Solitary, Amos strikes up a friendship with the family's young son, Aubrey. Also a loner, Aubrey uses his camera as a barrier between himself and the difficult world. He shoots photographs to avoid dealing with reality.
Over time, Aubrey loses everyone and everything he loves -- his ailing mother, his beloved summer retreat, and Amos, who escapes the town and a troubled personal life. Aubrey spends his life searching for stability amidst a world in turmoil leading up to, during, and after the Second World War.
Smith uses lyrical phrases to capture the characters and amplify the contradictions in the their lives. Amos contributes his physical strength to construct a world he doesn't fit into: "He'd brought down forests to raise them upright as electricity poles lining the streets of cities he'd never seen." Aubrey raises his camera "to freeze the moment. He and his subject were just as they were, there was no more to be said about either."
Except Aubrey is guilt-ridden for pretending he doesn't know what happens after one fateful shutter click. The decisions he makes as a result change the course of his life.
Aubrey's journey is a sweeping tour of history. He witnesses injustices done to aboriginals trying hard to maintain their existence on the land, but who are cruelly swept aside by the burgeoning oil industry in Alberta in the 1940s. He is a bystander to executives from Standard Oil and other American companies conniving to finance and build Hitler's war machine. "Being you, not them, that's happiness," magnate Irénée du Pont proclaims, justifying the goal to enrich himself and his ilk. Aubrey's aunt represents the anti-fascist social conscience, but she is a woman and a drunk, her opinions a dismissive joke.
Smith says many of the scenes she incorporated into The Eye of the Day came from stories her father told her when she was a child including, interestingly, spying on legendary Swedish film actress Greta Garbo swimming naked in a chilly mountain lake.
Smith sees nature as a character itself, and her poetic style infuses the narrative with a magical tone. Her unique descriptions of nature -- "the fierce creativity of the skies," "cattails with long, musical leaves" -- are a result of experiences she had living on a Navajo reservation after she left home, a special time she claims changed her world view forever.
In The Eye of the Day, she demonstrates the talent to explore all corners of human and natural existence from the perspective of the heart. She convincingly shows that the needs of the heart are what matters most -- no matter what world-shattering event a person experiences or how far that person has travelled from home.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.