Sacred and Profane

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, by Allan Stratton, (Dundurn)

The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish is an odd sort of creature, rather like the result of some mad gene splicing experiment combining DNA from Nathaniel West, Carson, McCullers, and Horatio Alger. It is at once innocent and deeply cynical, a romance that litters the road to true love with all sorts of wreckage.

Mary Mabel, stuck with a drunken, uncaring father, and living at the finishing school at which he serves as handyman, is both unhappy and genuine: dreaming of a different life, while seeing both the best and the worst in the world around her.

The characters in this novel are types most readers will recognize, but they’re painted with enough detail that at their best moments they transcend stereotype. Besides Mabel’s father and the woman who runs the school (and later poses as a titled gentry) we have a half-crazed, going on fully crazed revivalist preacher; a sanctimonious con man; a newspaper man who will do anything for a story, and who hides a a streak of decency beneath his opportunism. There’s also the ghost of Mary Mabel’s mother.

The story opens with a resurrection. Mary Mabel impulsively lays hands on and reanimates a boy struck by lightening during a revival held in a tent that was previously the site of an adultery-inspired double murder. And the story goes on from there: complex, ridiculous, mocking.

At its best moments Mary Mabel is humorous and engaging, but at other times (those most West-like) it feels heavy-handed and deliberately provocative. The characters are never quite fleshed out enough to carry the weight of the narrative. Instead the author gets by keeping readers off balance and throwing one knuckle ball after another their way.

This isn’t a book to read when you’re hungering for a narrative you can get lost in, but when you’d like some narrative pyrotechnics you may find it amusing.

April 16 2014 07:01 am | Uncategorized

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