I'd put off reading this novel since it came out. Mostly because of the effect that 'Fall on Your Knees' had on me. (Which included handing out more than fifty copies to friends and family since its publication.) Fear must have been part of it, fear about how much better this one might be, might not be... 'Fall' was proof to me of how great writing could be. The author writing something better might have had me intimidated (yes, I'm a writer), and yet her writing something 'not better, not even as good as' might have disappointed me so much to have had a deleterious effect. Fortunately, neither possibility resulted.
Ms MacDonald is an extremely talented writer. There is an assuredness in her writing, in how she executes what she does, that goes deep. For me, a novel (or a screenplay for that matter) has its author taking the reader by the hand, saying "I have a story for you. Walk with me while I tell it to you..." When this is done with confidence (and not just 'writerly ability, getting the vocabulary, the grammar, the construction right) the whole reading experience is taken up a level, approaching being transported. And yet she does not 'over-write'. She is not prone to 'purple prose'. She is as likely to throw out a juicy riff as she is to dig deep. Clearly a great observer of people, she understands the complexities of character and relays them with honesty and humour. Moreover, though every piece of writing is, at its core, an expression of the writer, 'Crow' is clean, unencumbered by 'at least to these eyes' literary earmarks.
This novel has a lot going on. And yes, I'm not sure that it needed to be as expansive as it is. ("Couldn't you just take out a few notes?") When I began the final 150 or so pages, I confess I did mutter 'This better be good...' (In fairness, it was...and it wasn't.) I'll admit that a judicious amount of editing might have made it an even better experience to read than it was. There are a sizable number of cultural references 'no surprise here, as the story begins in 1962 and ends two decades-plus later' that do provide for some smiles for anyone the author's age, but at times, seemed to veer towards the indulgent...and yet...and yet Ms MacDonald does it with a very zippy, tangy flair, in a way that doesn't burden, doesn't weigh down the execution. (The sign of true talent is to make everything seem so effortless. This is what you get with her novels.)
I'd forgotten how well Ms MacDonald does heartbreak. In this regard, she reminds me of a cook who is renowned for her pastry. She puts on a meal, the courses are providing enormous pleasure for the diners, and then all of a sudden she brings out a plate and you remember "Oh...that's right...she's a pastry genius, too..." I was caught off-guard when she 'brought out the (heartache) pastry'; my usual response was to close the book and consider where it was all going...and whether or not I was up to it. But again, she manages this without it becoming this set-piece of self-indulgence.
This story has some quite-picante twists that reminded me of Ms MacDonald's craftsmanship, her authoritative ways as a writer...never mind her deft touch. By turns a travelogue of the times, an exploration of Canadiana, sexual, regional and familial identities, all wrapped around a very sobering incident, the novel is a fine tale, the sort you'd want to have a travelmate tell you on a cross-country ViaRail ride.
My standard quote regarding 'Fall on Your Knees' has always been what I opined to a bookseller: "If you're a writer, this novel will either intimidate you so much as to never write another word, or so inspire you as to write as you've never written before." ''The Way the Crow Flies'? It doesn't have the same energy, the same dynamic, or even the same intent. So maybe it's unfair to expect as strident an opinion might result from its reading. But I will say this: Ann-Marie MacDonald is a gem, someone whose talent manages to reassure while still blowing away this writer, reminding him what can be accomplished if one stays true to one's own voice.
I look forward to hearing Ms MacDonald's voice again and again and again.