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Fifth Business [Paperback]

Robertson Davies , M.G. Vassanji
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 24 2005 0143051385 978-0143051381 2nd
Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy in the end prove neither innocent nor innocuous. Fifth Business stands alone as a remarkable story told by a rational man who discovers that the marvelous is only another aspect of the real.

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The first book of Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy tells the story of three men destined to be crucial players in each others' lives. The story is, in fact, the memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, a long-time boarding-school teacher, set to retire. Written to the headmaster of the school, the memoir intends to disprove the common belief that Ramsay is nothing more than a senile old professor, "doddering into retirement with tears in his eyes and a drop hanging from his nose." The story includes two other main characters, the outcast and eventual circus performer Paul Dempster and socialite Boy Staunton, with his "too glossy perfection."

The story of Ramsay's life begins when he is 10 years old, living in a small Canadian town called Deptford. A snowball thrown by Boy Staunton, intended for Ramsay, hits the pregnant mother of Paul Dempster, forcing her into labour early. She gives birth to a premature and deformed Paul. Ramsay feels responsible for this, and thus begins his guilty friendship with Paul, as well as his grudging friendship with Boy. Eventually, Dunstan Ramsay goes off to fight in the First World War, where he earns a Victoria Cross. He later travels throughout Europe and Mexico to pursue his interest in saints and write several books about them. He even attempts to prove that Paul's mother, whom he had taken a liking to over the years, is in fact a saint. Paul and Boy keep crossing paths with Dunstan, for good and ill, for the rest of his life. This fascinating, absorbing classic of Canadian literature is punctuated with elements of the comic, the supernatural, and the magical (even touching on the occult), while the writing itself is always elegant and at times exquisite. --Mark Frutkin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

One of the splendid literary enterprises of this decade. -- Peter Prescott, Newsweek --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Davies as master story-teller Oct. 28 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As fresh today as it was when I first read it in high school some 34 years ago and, more importantly, it still speaks to those students to whom I teach it in the 21st Century classroom, not least because it is unashamedly Canadian in focus and it is a great introduction to Jungian psychology. It remains my favourite novel because, as with anyone's favourite piece of literature, it affects me most personally.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book I had never heard of July 18 2002
Format:Paperback
Fifth Business, the first installment of the Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, is without doubt the best novel that I had never heard of. Davies prose and narrative voice rival Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in elegance, humor, and style. And his characters and plot development, so rich, absorbing, and at once triumphant and tragic, put this fine novel in the same class as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The term 'Fifth Business', as Davies describes, refers to the role in an opera, usually played by a man, which has no opposite of the other sex. While only a supporting character, he is essential to the plot, for he often knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when all seems lost, or may even be the cause of someone's death. In this novel, Dunstan Ramsay plays this role, and he is in maginificent form. Though he narrates the novel, and is intimately entwined in the lives of all its characters, he somehow manages to remain slightly in the background as a passive observer of others. It is through his eyes that we witness the rise of Boy Staunton, his childhood friend from the small Canadian town of Deptford. While Dunny goes off to the war where he is seriously wounded, and later becomes a boarding school master and expert on the history of saints, Boy makes his fortune in the sugar business and eventually pursues a career in politics. Dunny, whose soft-spoken charm, honesty, and self-reflection become clear through his narration, serves as an admirable foil to Boy, whose drive and ambition are unrestrained by a sense of morality, duty, or altruism.
But the novel is far more complex than a simple study of two contrasting characters. Davies' cast is rich and diverse, and their lives intertwine fluidly, though often in surprising ways.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All-time Canadian Classic! Sept. 29 2011
Format:Paperback
This is considered one of the greatest books in Canadian literature. I think it is the best. The striking thing about this book is it is both traditional and modern. The main character Dunstan Ramsay is a biographer of saints and a believer in miracles. Mythology, psychology, chance and the modern world interplay for this classic tale which seeks to unravel many of life's questions. I would recommend reading the entire Deptford Trilogy including The Manticore and World of Wonders as it will flush out many of the unanswered questions from Fifth Business.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A compelling finish. Oct. 4 2000
Format:Paperback
The best way to approach Fifth business is to read it in small installments. This is definitely not a read until sunrise book. This is a true Saga, leaving out plenty of unnecessary detail. It covers the life of one man, almost desperately trying to prove that he has lived a full and interesting life. As the reader, you are to judge this by paying attention to his bizarre but captivating hobbies in life. Most people don't want to read about dubious sex scenes, nor sinners and saints. Davies draws on our own feeling, we all have our own unique interests in life and find that relating to Ramsay is easy. The ending is not so much of a shocker as a pleasant conclusion to a story which nearing the finish has been dragged out somewhat. None the less what makes this book a great read is how it sets the scene for the next installment of the Deptford trilogy (The manticore) which is twice as wonderful, though pointless without reading fifth business. None the less there are great lessons of life to be learned, and a vaguely true generalisation of Canadians. A fair read, though a great trilogy. Three stars.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Product not the same as description March 12 2014
By Judy
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Was not hardcover like the description said. The reason why I bought this book was for the hardcover.
The book smells very bad.
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5.0 out of 5 stars What a Great Journey, What a Great Read April 12 2012
Format:Paperback
Fifth Business is a great installment in the genre of magic realism with a twist of comedy and paradox. It captures the image of small-town Canadian characters well and follows how their paths intertwine on a global scale. Fifth Business achieves a really detailed story with the addition of subtle underlying plots and questions that are what really make the book an enjoyable and active read. And to think, it all started with one snowball in 1908.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Literary magic May 13 2002
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
There are a thousand reviews on Amazon saying "this is the best book I've ever read", so they're easy to pass off as hyperbole, but do yourself a favor and read this book. This is great literature, and although I am pleased to find a lot of reviews here saying that it is required reading in many literature classes, this is a book that inspires more than academic analysis - approach it with a sense of wonder and you will be amply rewarded.
I first read "Fifth Business" around 1970, and I've been telling people for over thirty years that I've never read anything to compare to it. At the time everyone was touting "The French Lieutenant's Woman" for it's "magical realism", but that was a cold read compared to "Fifth Business." This book transports you. You will find it hard to leave the world of Dunstan Ramsey when you finish this book.
The rest of the "Deptford Trilogy" is very good (though I found "World of Wonders" far superior to "The Manticore"), but if Davies had never written another word after "Fifth Business" his literary reputation would have been assured.
After spending all those years claiming that this book is the best novel of the second half of the 20th centiry, I felt an obligation to pick it up again as the year 2000 rolled around, since it had been several years since I last read it. I was not disappointed - despite being so familiar with the book, I was unable to put it down, and read far into the night before finishing.
Do yourself a favor and visit the world of Dunstan Ramsey - those who don't are the poorer for it.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Amazing story! I've ordered the next 2 in the trilogy.
Published 6 days ago by marib
3.0 out of 5 stars It was heavy reading for me as a young adult
I might LOVE the book now - though I doubt I'll return to it. But I read this book in the mid-90s when I was a young man in my 20s and I found the book to be rather long, slow. Read more
Published on Jan. 14 2012 by David Sabine
4.0 out of 5 stars The tale of Dunstan
Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy is a strange, slightly magical trio of fictional biographies, all of which originate in the small Canadian town of Deptford. Read more
Published on April 30 2011 by E. A Solinas
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Trilogy I've Ever Read
It has been a few years since I have read Fifth Business along with the Manticore and World of Wonders and it remains the best trilogy I have ever read. Read more
Published on June 29 2010 by Steven Arsenault
5.0 out of 5 stars Fifth Business
Just a short correction...title is 'Fifth Business', not 'The Fifth Business', and author is Robertson Davies, not M.G. Vassanji as Amazon has it on their best book site. Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2008 by dfra
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Canadian author, hands down.
As others have already mentioned, this novel is top notch. I read it as part of my high-school courseware, and it's the only novel I re-read regularly.
Published on Aug. 1 2007 by SuzieC
5.0 out of 5 stars Phenomenal
Fifth Business is one of the finest books in Canadian literature that I have had the pleasure of reading. Read more
Published on Aug. 17 2005 by fiona
5.0 out of 5 stars The Finest
I first read Fifth Business as a course requirement in college 25 years ago. To this day, that very same copy sits on my bookshelf, dog-eared and well worn. Read more
Published on Feb. 14 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars undeservedly unknown
Merciful heavens, what a novel!! The implications of a thrown stone-loaded snowball is the basis of this book, and indeed an entire trilogy. Read more
Published on June 29 2003 by wellred
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