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Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
The Memory Artists

The Globe And Mail
Red rose winner

Saturday, April 15, 2000
JIM BARTLEY


PRISONER IN A RED-ROSE CHAIN
By Jeffrey Moore
Thistledown Press, 395 pages

One pleasure of Montreal translator Jeffrey Moore's first novel is that it sent me to the dictionary, and not to check a spelling. Moore aptly uses the word "callipygian" in reference to the human anatomy. I won't spoil anyone's fun by saying more. The book offers more and greater pleasures, heralding a voice that's both sprightly and erudite, and equally deft with tart ironies or disarming intimacies.

In the early 1970s, a prepubescent Yorkshire lad named Jeremy Davenant visits his adopted uncle in a Miss Havisham-ish flat in York, within sight of the famed Minster's medieval spires. Uncle Gerard is the sort of bachelor who's more at the mercy of slow horses than fast women, but he is devoted to young Jeremy and charmingly fills the gap left by his missing father and a sneering stepfather.

Gerard is an avid literary gamesman (one of his anagrams for "William Shakespeare" is "I swear he is like a lamp"); he blindfolds Jeremy and has him choose a book from the groaning shelves, then tear a random page from it. This page, he intones, will be Jeremy's "flying carpet," offering clues that will guide him through life.

Cut to North York, Ont., to which the manipulating stepdad has dragged Jeremy and his mother to sever their affectionate ties to Gerard. Jeremy endures suburban school life in a place devoid of inspiring eccentrics, and invests his imagination in "the Page." It's from an encyclopedia, and includes entries on an African tyrant, a Ukrainian coal-mining town, a Hindu romantic drama and William Shakespeare.

Fully conscious of the irrational in Gerard's prescription, the adult Jeremy nevertheless finds himself teaching Shakespeare in a Montreal university, and living in a flat owned by Ukrainians. Soon he meets the mysterious, taciturn, hairy-armpitted Milena. His pursuit of her thoroughly alienated affection is the engine driving the rest of this lively, sometimes very funny (and very messy) story of romantic obsession.

The device of the prophetic page gives the novel an integrating leitmotif, raising questions of what brings about watershed moments in a life, and how we might alter those moments, build on their promise or repair their damage. Moore's characters are perhaps too literal too often in their speculations on fate and free will, but he makes up for it with keen characterizations, some hugely engaging set pieces and a plot that traces a gratifying arc. This tale's rosy ending admirably retains its thorns.

Toronto critic and playwright Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first fiction reviewer