Fiction Review by Norma Lundberg

Paul Bowdring, The Strangers' Gallery (Halifax: Vagrant, 2013). Paperbound, 360 pp., $21.95.

Paul Bowdring's protagonist in The Strangers' Gallery, Michael Lowe, begins on The Strangers' GalleryFather's Day 1996 to tell the story of the past year of his life. The novel's title alludes to a visit Lowe made years earlier to an art gallery in Paris when he briefly studied French there. The fictional Galerie des Étrangers exhibited paintings of the Dutch art forger Han van Meegeren. Elements of being a stranger are a subtext of Lowe's life. He lives alone, estranged from his wife, and rarely sees his mother, his siblings, or their families. He seems a virtual stranger in his changing neighbourhood where all but one of the original families has moved on. Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1949, the year that province entered confederation, Lowe grew up unfamiliar with both its early history and that of his father, who had died when he was a child. His passion for knowing the story of the island led him to work in the provincial archives, and to a friendship with gadfly and anti-confederationist Brendan "Miles" Harnett, an eccentric expert on Newfoundland's four-hundred-year history. Both men are outsiders sharing a near-obsessive search for detailed island history and skepticism about much-touted official virtues of urban development and foreign investment. Nor do they see Newfoundland's history as a British colony much different from its new status as a virtual Canadian "colony" since its controversial absorption into Canada. For Harnett, the lyrics of Newfoundland's 1869 "Anti-Confederation Song," composed when it was first debated whether to join the new Canadian dominion, still hold true: "Not a stranger shall hold one inch of its strand."

Lowe has reached middle age feeling he hasn't "even started" living when two strangers enter his life. The first is a new neighbour he immediately feels "strangely drawn to." Miranda (aptly, the book's first epigraph is from The Tempestin which Prospero's daughter proclaims O brave new world!) is a painter and art teacher whose growing closeness to Lowe is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of a second newcomer. An acquaintance from the Netherlands, Anton Aalders, appears on a visit but soon moves in with Lowe and makes himself at home. Fifteen years earlier, when both were students in Paris, Aalders had taken Lowe to La Galerie des Étrangers to see the forged Vermeer paintings by his countryman, van Meegeren. Aalders now claims that his passion for town planning, bird watching, rare plants, and a forgotten opera star have led him to St. John's. He eventually discloses the real reason for his visit: to locate the soldier from Newfoundland who served in the army in the Netherlands during World War II, fathered him, then abandoned his mother to return to Canada.

The city of St. John's is itself a vital character in the novel, being the heart of "an orphaned land mass," as Lowe thinks of Newfoundland. He travels on foot through long-familiar streets, sometimes with Aalders and Harnett, conjuring the ghosts of demolished dwellings and shops, sharing their dismay that entire neighbourhoods were razed "waiting for progress to wave its magic wand." Besides his penchant for saving written records in "the groves of archivy," Lowe's thoughts about what he observes and his conversations with the people he meets along with the sights, sounds and sensory features of the city, capture in his memory an archive of its humanity. The walking pace of Bowdring's prose, with its eloquent detail, even faint echoes of Joyce's lost Dublin, contributes to a reader's vivid sense of place.

In the novel's final section the motif of fathers comes to the fore. Lowe has discovered more about his dead father and travels with Aalders through unfamiliar countryside searching for Aalder's father, much as Harnett seeks an authentic fatherland freed from the taint of colonial history. Lowe returns from this trip to "terra incognita" realizing he does not share a history with this "former country" as Harnett had, but is open to responding directly to place and begins recording his personal history into notebooks. He has learned from Harnett that there is no single thread to history and that local tales of people's lives and deeds, myths, oral history, and traditional songs all have archival value. All of Bowdring's characters in his Gallery embody memories of family and island history with the women forming an essential part of that sustaining community. They undertake voyages of their own, like Lowe's cousin Charmaine, or pursue their own meaningful lives through their work and art, virtual Penelopes of patience, wisdom, and endurance.

By the end of the novel, the role of actual "fathering" becomes a new possibility for Michael Lowe. Affected by profound changes over the year for Miranda, Harnett, and Aalders, his thinking about the role of archives has also been altered. Seeing what gets left out of official documents makes him wonder about the relationship between the accumulated records of human history and the diverse experiences of simply being human, and how our memories shape our sense of what's real. Too often, traditional archives consist of what has been recorded by the colonizers, not the colonized, and are not a completely authentic representation. He recalls Harnett's comment that the most valuable collection might be an "archives of the soul" that defies formal processes of collection and preservation.

—Norma Lundberg

As in The Malahat Review, 189, Winter 2014, 101-103