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The Amazing Absorbing Boy
By Rabindranath Maharaj
Knopf Canada, 352 pages, $30
MOVING to a new country is never an easy thing, but it helps to have a super-power or two hidden under a crimson cape.
In this charming literary novel, Trinidad-born Canadian Rabindranath Maharaj presents the fear and excitement of immigrating to Canada through the eyes of a 17-year-old Trinidadian teenager.
Though Sam starts out with no knowledge of his adopted country, he does have a vast knowledge of comic books, whose fantastic tales and super-human exploits help him interpret the strange new world around him.
In telling Sam's story, Maharaj also allows the reader to see Canadian society through a pair of fresh, unprejudiced eyes.
The author of three previous novels and three short-story collections, Maharaj knows the hardship of moving to a new country first-hand.
And like fellow Caribbean-born Canadian novelists André Alexis and Neil Bissoondath, Maharaj has made the experience of immigration the subject of at least some of his writing.
But while Maharaj immigrated to Canada as an adult, his character is forced to leave his old life behind at a much more vulnerable age, much like the protagonist of Latvian-born David Bezmozgis's 2004 collection, Natasha and Other Stories.
After Sam's mother dies of cancer, his uncle Boysie decides that Sam should go live with his father in Toronto. At first, Sam fantasizes about the long-awaited reunion with his father, who he hasn't seen since he was six.
When Sam finally gets to Canada, however, his father treats him with silence and sarcasm, dashing hopes for a rekindled relationship.
Meanwhile, Sam has to figure out how to get by in the new and unfamiliar city. Back in Trinidad, his school friends had talked about Canada as a strange and fantastic place, where shaved ice fell from the sky in all different flavours and colours.
The reality, as Sam finds out, is not quite so wonderful. But despite his lack of familiarity with his new home, Sam does have a vast knowledge of comic books, which he uses to interpret the world around him.
When he starts riding the subway he sees the people rushing off to work as mole people, and an unlicensed Eastern European dentist that he meets as "Mothski the Moleman."
Other people that Sam encounters are similarly portrayed as larger-than-life, super-hero type figures. He thinks of his elderly next-door neighbour as a genie, and a friendly librarian a chimera. Eventually Sam gets a job at a gas station, becoming a super-hero himself — Petroman.
The novel proceeds episodically, as Sam discovers new places and meets different groups of people. "This is what I like about Toronto," one of Sam's newfound friends tells him. "Just cross the street and you are in a completely different country. Everybody's here."
Though the original "Amazing Absorbing Boy" was a friend of Sam's from Trinidad, the name also applies to Sam himself — with each new experience, he learns something else about his new environment.
While Sam is forced to deal with the challenges of living a new place, he also has to navigate the perils of growing up, including his fraught relationship with his father. "It seemed that my father had influenced me more by his absence than if I had seen his face every day of my life," he reflects.
Maharaj's clear, unpretentious prose, sprinkled unobtrusively with Trinidadian words and expressions, creates a convincing voice for Sam. If anything, however, Sam's character is a bit too sympathetic.
Though his unsullied perspective allows Maharaj to portray Canada from the eyes of an outsider, Sam's purity and naivité also make him a less believable character.
Nonetheless, The Amazing Absorbing Boy is a touching tale of discovery.
Ezra Glinter is a Winnipeg writer and the books editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.