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The more you read, the less you want to give up Hope

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The Age of Hope

By David Bergen

HarperCollins, 288 pages, $28

Is there any novelist in Canada now who can give us characters as full and irreducibly human as Winnipeg's David Bergen does?

His Giller Prize-nominated The Matter with Morris (2010) is certainly a hard act to follow. The story of a father struggling with his son's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan, The Matter with Morris was a public novel, contemporary, treating violence and non-violence, Canadian-American relations (by proxy), and media pontifications.

The novel was disturbing and yet Bergen's funniest since his first in 1996, A Year of Lesser, as Morris wandered around asking people, "Are you free?" and later, "Are you Jewish?"

The Age of Hope is quieter, but no less moving. (And it's better than the 2005 Giller-winning The Time in Between). Hope Koop (née Plett), an unremarkable woman from the Mennonite town of Eden, believes that there are no women in books who spend their days "bleaching sinks, ironing clothes, and holding children. Of course not. That would make for an agonizingly empty story."

She can't have read Alice Munro's stories or Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries because they weren't published until later in Hope's life. But Bergen has. For Morris, Bergen drew on Saul Bellow's Herzog, and made much hay out of the masculine bluster of men his own age.

For Hope, born 1930, Bergen does what Shields did a generation earlier: he takes up -- with neither condescension nor false sentimentality -- the life of a seemingly insignificant woman his mother's age.

Hope is a fully formed adult and well-off bourgeois woman by the time 1960s feminism arrives, so it's both alien to her -- she could never seek self-fulfilment if it meant abandoning her husband or children -- and strangely insistent, drumming on her chest in ways she can't quite grasp.

The empty suitcase in Degas's beautiful and sad painting Intérieur, haunts her, though she can't explain why.

Alongside Hope's yearning, the novel often carries a smiling, muted humour that arrives in those difficult moments when characters don't quite understand what the world is throwing at them. When Hope's fourth daughter, Melanie, is born, the doctor pronounces her healthy, and says, "She'll probably be an Olympic athlete."

Hope, still too much of a Mennonite to pray to the spectacle and ambitions of Main Street Canada, replies, "Well, we don't want that." She's not joking.

An earlier such moment, more telling, occurs after Hope's friend Emily has managed to fly free of marriage and Eden, and is attending a psychology course at university, while Hope is struggling to accept the fact that she's pregnant again.

With the lofty certainty that her city adventures are always more important than Hope's country-mouse life, Emily describes a very important unnamed book that she's reading -- clearly The Feminine Mystique. But Hope mishears Emily call the author "Betty Friesen" (not Friedan), and is surprised that an Eden woman their own age who lives over on Third Street has written a book.

Hope's rebellions against her maternal role are small. She runs off to Winnipeg for a day of wild dissipation (i.e. smoking a cigarette, buying a fur coat and some things for the kids).

Sometimes the rebellions are puzzling even to her: she leaves her car in near-freezing temperatures, walks out into a field and lies down. Next stop, Winkler Mental Health Centre and electro-shock therapy. (Those familiar with southern Manitoba will recognize that the name of Bergen's fictional town -- Eden, a name more advertisement than description -- is also the name of Winkler's present mental health centre.)

Bergen tells Hope's story without turning to polemic. Inadvertently spurred by Emily, Hope tries to make a list of the ways in which she has been respectively active and passive, but gets confused between the two, and falls asleep. Though Emily's vulgarity is refreshing, her life holds no answer for Hope; there's a lot that Emily doesn't understand.

On the other hand, though Hope stays home with her children, they don't turn out the way she might have wanted, and remain needy, even as adults. Her husband, a car dealer and a good man, doesn't really understand why his wife might be dissatisfied.

Hope thinks, "Roy, like all men, believed circumstances and events could be controlled. This is why men went to war, and this is why they married."

It's a profound observation, though not necessarily Bergen's final word.

In a Bergen novel, one often feels unmoored, as in the world. This is not a criticism, but high praise. No one will give us the key to the house; no one will say for certain which sentiments from which characters can finally be trusted. Nevertheless, The Age of Hope does have a moral centre.

The Toronto journalist and author Russell Smith complained in a recent newspaper column that it's still 1955 in CanLit, using a one-sentence description of Bergen's novel to score his points. Tragically (for fashion correspondents, at least), Bergen isn't wearing this year's suit. He's still giving us spartan and elegantly wrought prose.

Neither plot nor brand-name-dropping are major considerations for Bergen, though much happens. Mostly, Hope just soldiers on, lifting that bale. And yet readers will find it difficult to put the novel down.

Her life is the plot, and the more one reads, the more reluctant one is to part with Hope.

Brandon University professor Reinhold Kramer has published four books on Canadian literature and history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 J10

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