Readers may be excused for approaching Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing
, a historical novel set in 1970s Ottawa, with a degree of cynicism. While the popularity of historical novels has never been stronger, the genre has reached the point of exhaustion, with most recent books being little more than moralizing reconsiderations of the past. Thankfully, Some Great Thing
reverses the course of this trend by returning to the genre's roots--not by rewriting history, but by exploring how history came to be made in the first place.
In this case, the history of Ottawa is shaped by the passions of two men: house developer Jerry McGuinty and bureaucrat Simon Struthers. McGuinty is obsessive in his desire for Kathleen, a free-spirited woman he eventually marries. But McGuinty is also obsessed with fantasies of building a city out of the empty land around Ottawa--of building the future. His desire to build perfect neighbourhoods consumes him, and he is unable to see his home life falling into ruin until it's too late. Similarly, Struthers's desire to leave a legacy leads to his quest to create some sort of lasting monument in the developing city, but this passion becomes entangled with his yearnings for a young woman, with disastrous results.
The lives of the two men intersect over the course of the novel, and their interactions shape the development of Ottawa itself. Not surprisingly, the city's history is one of broken dreams and failures, of corruption and the desire for power winning out over visions and ideals. Out of this bleak material, however, a story of redemption and self-discovery slowly emerges. McAdam's characters apply the basic premise of the historical novel--reconstruction of the past--to themselves, and they explore their own lives not only to make amends for the past, but also to find new ways of living in the present. --Peter Darbyshire
From Publishers Weekly
Urban planning and construction in Ottawa, Canada, might seem like dull subjects on which to build a novel, but in this compelling, bawdy debut, McAdam fashions them into powerful metaphors for the ambitions and personalities of two opposing characters, Jerry McGuinty and Simon Struthers. An introverted construction worker whose most reliable expression is "fuckin eh," McGuinty dreams of building better houses than the shoddy tract homes he's hired to plaster; eventually, he becomes one of the most powerful developers of suburban Ottawa. Struthers, on the other hand, is the master of the charming, vapid bureaucratic memo; the government's director of design and land use, he has a reputation for a smooth tongue in the office and among the ladies. Distracted by one love affair after another, Struthers feels age erode his promise until he becomes desperate to accomplish some great public works projectâ"on the same piece of land where McGuinty is determined to build his most magnificent housing community yet. Fans of Martin Dressler
will appreciate McAdam's attention to the mechanics of real estate development, but his forceful, cartwheeling prose style is more akin to that of Dermot Healy or Lawrence Sterne. His first-person narrators wink and hint at the reader, and he sometimes indulges in stream of consciousness or other formal play. Some of these sections have more flash than substanceâ"the book's least successful bit is its first 20 pages. But McAdam redeems himself by fusing his housing narrative with a thoughtful exploration of the dynamics of home, where the relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, can often be more loving than those between husband and wife. Technical prowess and a surprising empathy mark McAdam as a writer to watch.
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