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. There is Mrs. Dempster, who in the opening pages is struck by a snowball thrown by Boy and intended for Dunny, and is rendered "simple" after the subsequent premature birth of her son Paul. Paul runs away from home at a young age, but reappears later in the novel in a key role. And Liesl, the magician's manager, a strong-willed and sexually aggressive woman, hardened by life but wise in the ways of the world, proves to be an admirable rival for Dunny as astute observer of others.
Narrated in the form of a letter to Dunny's headmaster, the novel maintains a strong sense of plain honesty throughout. It is a remarkable novel, and a shock that Davies has remained relatively obscure in this country.