Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/3/2012 (3024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Toronto writer Kyo Maclear's lovely second novel is set in present-day London and Vietnam War-era Saigon and tells the story an adopted son of a British foreign correspondent.
Marcel Laurence, despite his European name, grows up non-white in 1950s England, with no idea who -- or where -- his birth parents are. The one constant in his life is his adoptive father Oliver, who himself was orphaned by the London blitz.
Given all of that, it will surprise no one to hear that Maclear -- the British-Japanese daughter of foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear -- has focused Stray Love on issues of identity, loss and healing. Traditional Canlit tropes, right?
But it is Maclear's risk-taking, her willingness to write characters so close to her own experience and to put them through so very much that makes Stray Love an important novel. It also firmly establishes Maclear in the echelon of home-and-abroad writers such as Madeleine Thien and Karen Connelly.
Interestingly, while Maclear takes great pains to get Marcel -- and her readers -- to 1960s Vietnam, the majority of her novel's conflicts are domestic.
Oliver, though distracted by his work and its attendant demons, works hard to keep the details of the war -- the zippo missions and hot zones he reports on -- from his son.
He also works hard to keep the identity of Marcel's birth parents a secret. All Marcel knows is that his mother was briefly institutionalized and that Oliver loved her. Which isn't much help to Marcel, whose mixed-race appearance draws stares from adults and taunts from schoolmates in England.
Once in Vietnam, however, 11-year-old Marcel is left his own devices, which include drawing in his notebook and wandering the streets around Hotel Continental, the home base for Saigon's foreign correspondents.
Though everything around him is strange, Marcel is startled by how at home he feels in Vietnam:
"In Saigon, I walked lightly. I bore fewer questions, suffered less scrutiny and, consequently, felt more at ease. Everywhere I looked, I saw faces that resembled mine, Eurasian faces, Hmong faces, in-between faces."
Maclear's previous novel, The Letter Opener (1997) and the children's book Spork (2010), were similarly focused on identity.
Unlike Stray Love, which relies on the documentary evidence of Marcel's drawings and Oliver's newspaper clippings, Maclear's earlier work puts a lot of weight, metaphorically, on objects.
Structurally, Stray Love alternates between Marcel's insecure childhood and his middle age, where he is still uncertain about who he is, even if he now knows who his parents are.
Marcel is driven into memories of his childhood when his oldest friend, the Japanese-English Kiyomi, asks if he can look after her daughter Iris for a few weeks.
Iris drags out a suitcase of Marcel's mother's things, which Marcel must now deal with, literally and figuratively, before Kiyomi comes to pick up Iris.
Maclear can be forgiven for making Marcel's "baggage" manifest, after all the darkness that has preceded it. It's all "just stuff," right?
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.
By Kyo Maclear
HarperCollins, 320 pages, $30
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.