Book Review: Childhood by André Alexis

Childhood is one of the best stories written with the theme of time/memory and relationships. It is an intimate story of a man’s search for insight, if not understanding and meaning. This is a story that haunts on my levels.

Published twenty years ago (1998), Childhood by André Alexis, continues to loom large in my imagination. Childhood is told through the eyes of Thomas MacMillan. When the story begins, Thomas is a middle-aged man contemplating loss. He notes that it has been “six months since my mother died; a shade less since Henry passed.” Thomas, the narrator, has been brooding and decides:

Perhaps writing is the discipline I need.

So I will write, precisely, about my mother and Henry, about Love, with you in mind, from the beginning.

The “you” in the story is Marya, the woman he loves, a woman we never meet. He writes about memories as mysterious as childhood itself, their clarity elusive.

We meet the child Thomas in Pretoria living with his grandmother, and we come to understand a bit about his loneliness and the cerebral world in which he lives, notwithstanding his deliciously whimsical interpretations of the external world.

After his “cantankerous” grandmother, Mrs. Edna MacMillan—retired school teacher and leader of the ill-fated “The Dickens Society of Lambton County”—dies, Thomas meets his mother for the first time. He’s been living with a neighbour for two weeks. He’s ten years old.

She knocked at the door. I answered.
– Yes?

In a soft voice, the first word I heard her speak, she said
– Thomas?
and leaned forward to hold me. Though it was unpleasant, I allowed myself to be enveloped.

–We have to go, she said.

Pretoria is left behind and a car trip to Montreal begins. This is when he tells us that his “small world splintered.” It is an unusual and disorienting journey that ends, not in Montreal, but Ottawa, at 77 Cooper, a rambling three-story house that includes a library, a laboratory, and Henry Wing. On this convergence of mother, Henry, and love, Thomas strives to understand life and himself. About understanding his mother, Katarina (Kata) MacMillan, he concludes:

So, of the woman who whelped me, I now a name, a date of birth, something of her parentage, and handful of incidents from her life. Essentially, I don’t know her that much more than I know my father, and the things I do know are almost useless where knowing is concerned.…

Mind you, I can barely scratch the surface of “Who am I?” either.

The structure of Childhood is circular. At the conclusion, the adult narrator Thomas writes from a desk at 77 Cooper:

…I’ve come full circle, or full spiral, or perhaps only up through the ground. (I mean, Time is the ground, but my analogy is weak.)

Soon, there’s a contradiction, as happens in life:

Time, which isn’t like ground at all, washes things up without regard for order or sense. My life comes back to me in various pieces, from Pablum to tombstones, each piece changing the contour of the life I’ve led.

I will have thousands of childhoods before time is done.

He says that he will “begin another retrospective when I must.”

Childhood takes us on a poignant journey through memory, yielding shifts, distortions, and truths. A thesis could be written about what is largely unsaid—the impact of the immigrant experience, the mystery of loss, the lack of physical affection, abandonment and reclamation—the things written between the lines.

For the writers among us, Childhood, is the best example I can think of for a circular story structure. This book is not memoir, although André Alexis grew up on Pretoria and lives in Ottawa, which gives depth to the specific, nuanced details in the fictional novel. The third thing to look for as you read is how the author moves expertly between adult and child so that in the end we see the child still residing in the man.

47 Childhood

Available through your local bookstore or online: Childhood

Bus & Mind Travels (Oaxaca Journal 2002 and The River of Consciousness 2017 by Oliver Sacks)

“[W]e deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.”

Oaxaca Journal documents physical travel, a trip taken, a journal kept. The River of Consicousness time travels across ideas that are wide-ranging and far-reaching toward an understanding of systems both physical and of the mind. A truly renaissance man, Sacks seems always to be looking simultaneously at details and the big picture of our understanding and of what makes us human, a holistic approach to physical science, neuroscience, creativity, and consciousness.

Oaxaca Journal:

Many of you will know Dr. Oliver Sacks from his book, Awakenings, or the movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. He was a prolific writer, often writing out of his observations and experiences from his medical practice, but not always.

The first book by Sacks’ that I read, Oaxaca Journal, is an adventure story, detailing his travels with the American Fern Society. The trip was “an introduction to a people, a country, a culture, a history, of which [he] knew almost nothing – this was wonderful, an adventure in itself… .” Sacks was a serious amateur biologist, an enthusiastic traveller, and also a lifelong journal-keeper. He had a keen eye for detail, was exceptionally curious, and he had an ability to weave a tale that keeps readers turning pages. He was anything but “a passive, impartial, observer.” For example, on this trip, he skips a bus tour to sit in the plaza, sees and analyses:

Tourists, pale-faced, awkward, uncouthly dressed, instantly stand out from the graceful indigenes… .
Writing, like this, at a café table, in a sweet outdoor square…this is la dolce vita. It evokes images of Hemingway and Joyce, expatriate writers at tables in Havana and Paris… . I love to write in an open sunny place, the windows admitting every sight and sound and smell of the outside world. I like to write at café tables, where I can see (though at a distance) society before me.

Oaxaca takes us on treacherous bus rides, roadside stops to examine ferns, inside a chocolate factory, and into plazas where children call “Peso, peso… .” We discover with him.


The River of Consciousness

We are also with him as he travels across eras – from Darwin’s ideas about evolution and his garden experiments in biology to the philosophy of the ancients right up to modern science and neuroscience on systems of the body and the mind.

Sacks is a weaver who could create a tapestry from disparate sciences and make sense of them, not just for scientists. One of my favourite chapters in the book is called “The Creative Self,” in which he explores play, mimicry, and imitation. “All of us,” he writes, “to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it.” And he also writes of the importance of incubation, “the hugely complex problems performed by an entire hidden, creative self,” often that come to us in the moments just before or just after sleep. And he says of creativity:

…that state when ideas seem to organize themselves into a swift, tightly woven flow, with a feeling of gorgeous clarity and meaning emerging – seems to me physiologically distinctive, and I think that if we had the ability to make fine enough brain images, these would show an unusual and widespread activity with innumerable connections and synchronizations occurring.

This, I suspect, is what the whole book might be about: the “innumerable connections an synchronizations” that occur across disciplines – arts and sciences.

For creative connections, playful curiosity, and a world of original ideas, one of Oliver Sacks’ fourteen books might be exactly where to turn. Oaxaca and The River of Consciousness provide just a glimpse.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Oaxaca Journal and River of Consciousness

Review (Poetry): With the Keenness of Time (Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele)

…Maybe time is not / an arrow after all but a whirling / storm about to touch down (“The Possibility of Time Travel”)

Mary di Michele’s consistent search through place and time continues in her latest collection, Bicycle Thieves, as do particular images.

Thirty-seven years ago, di Michele’s Bread and Chocolate (1980) was published, and in it a poem called “1952.” The poem lyrically describes the photograph we see on the cover of Bicycle Thieves. The poem and her current book’s cover attest to the desire to know what shaped her parents, her self. “1952” tracks a migration and in it we glimpse a man and a woman and hints of a puzzle. This puzzle is further explored in her latest collection.

In “The Bicycle Thief,” di Michele shares birth-place images and vivid sketches of her father – in youth and old age. She captures a return visit to Lanciano and regrets that she cannot go back in time as well as place, to a time “before / the World War, seen the boy my father was / before his father betrayed / a barefoot son / and sold his bicycle.” A patina of love and loss and change loosely covers section one – The Montreal Book of the Dead – like a sheer veil lifted in a breeze.

The middle section – Life Sentences (An Autobiography in Verse) – is comprised of 100 three-line stanzas. In them, a life passes by, nuanced with detail, yet like an illusion. Whereas in section one, the emigration is physical – place to place – in section two it is the lived past:

The past is that far
country you emigrated from
as a child.

It is the past of the poet under a sharply focused magnifying glass where she peers intently at that small enlarged circle, moving the magnifier across memories and through time. The cautionary voice warns: “Mary, you can’t go / back to yesterday, you were / a different person then” (#90). But Socrates suggests that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Di Michele, like Lorna Crozier (What the Soul Doesn’t Want, reviewed July 21 2017), poignantly holds a lens to the past, focusing it on both joys and sorrows in a search for its essence, for meaning. Di Michele’s poems explore the particulars of her life (of an immigrant child, of the mystery of parents, of the curious mind). They create a portal, a bridge that gives voice to universal experiences recognized by her readers.

In the final section – After – we find influences of di Michele’s reading, but even here, she takes us to a specific place and time that is hers. My favourite poem in Bicycle Thieves is “Evening Light” (After Umberto Saba); she tells us:

Moon rise.

                             In the street it’s still
day though dusk’s rapidly descending.
The young don’t notice, they’re busy
texting, faces lit up
by the screens. They have no idea
about death, how in the end, it’s

what helps you live.

And here we have it all: the observation and insight, the sense of time’s movement, the lyrically perfect words and flow.

Since Mary di Michele’s first book (Tree of Life, 1978), she has been honing her poetic skills, the writing becoming sharper, the insights keener. It’s hard to imagine what will come next – after Bicycle Thieves – but already I want it.

11a Bicycle Thieves cover LR-1

Available through your local bookstore or online: Bicycle Thieves