From the opening lines of this novel I knew it was going to be good – and it was. Good in that dark, musty, depressing way that only good Canadian Literature can be. It was like a big black cloud settled over me and I had to slow down so I could enjoy each agonizing minute. In fact, after a while I started the novel again so I could really savour it.
The story, told in diary-form, revolves around Mrs. Bentley (the diarist, first name never revealed) and her husband, Philip Bentley, a thwarted artist turned small town preacher. The couple has moved from one small Saskatchewan town to another over the course of their 12-year marriage and with each new false fronted town they put up more false fronts with each other and the townspeople they meet. They have just moved to the town of Horizon at the beginning of the novel and, as Mrs. Bentley tells us, each Horizon is the same as the others. They are childless and Mrs. Bentley seems to feel a great deal of guilt about not giving Philip a son. At one point they adopt a Catholic child which stirs up their Protestant congregation – as you can guess the novel focuses a lot on the hypocritical nature of small-town religion.
The lack of communication between the Bentleys is spectacularly uncomfortable and makes for a compelling read – it actually kept me on the edge of my seat. Sinclair’s descriptions of prairie life during the Great Depression are phenomenal:
The wind keeps on. When you step outside its strong hot push is like something solid pressed against the face. The sun through the dust looks big and red and close. Bigger, redder, closer every day. You begin to glance at it with a doomed feeling, that there’s no escape.
Death Toll: 1
In spite of the suffocating tone of the novel, not nearly as many people die as one would expect – or at least what I expected. I thought for sure near the end of the book people were going to be offing themselves left, right and centre but in fact it ends on a somewhat high note – as high as can be I suppose for a novel of this nature.
Highly recommended. I read this novel for the first time when I started this project I have since read it again (it gets better on the second read as a great novel should). I think about it often and wonder what I can do to get more people to read it.