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