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Davies, Robertson

cornish life canadian francis

(Canadian, 1913–95)

Robertson Davies was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1913, and educated at Oxford. Back in Canada he worked in theatre, journalism, academia, and above all as a novelist. The rich, sprawling, extrovert novels of Robertson Davies can make other writers seem rather anaemic. He throws in everything—the occult, university life, sexual and financial shenanigans, astrology, humour, love—which, with a lesser writer, might produce only a mess. But everything is perfectly controlled and coherent, in the unique universe that he creates. He works on an epic scale, often in trilogies. The Cornish Trilogy is one such, of which the central novel, What's Bred in the Bone (1985), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It tells the life story of Francis Cornish, whose elusive father, known as the Wooden Soldier, is a spy, his mother a society beauty, and who himself grows up to be an art collector, his life spanning the Canadian twentieth century. It is a magnificent achievement, not least in the way that the story is actually told by Francis Cornish's personal guiding spirit, Maimas, to the Recording Angel, the Lesser Zadkiel. Such is Davies's exuberant confidence that one soon accepts this as a quite reasonable narrative method. What's Bred in the Bone really needs to be read as part of the trilogy—Davies is hugely addictive. You might also try Murther and Walking Spirits (1992), the fantastical, Gothic tale of Connor Gilmartin, a murdered journalist in search of vengeance. Always something of the showman, with his long white beard and glittering eye, Davies offers high entertainment that is uniquely humane and thought-provoking.

John Cowper Powys, John Irving, Anthony Burgess. See CANADA  CH

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