More than a decade ago, on a side street off St. Clair West in Toronto, I came across a box of books marked FREE. When they were all still there the next morning as I was leaving a friend’s apartment, I scooped them up. Among field guides to birds and a few dusty relics was a rather nice copy of Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
I didn’t know Johnston’s work back then, so it was an unexpected pleasure to find the book an erudite and delightful read. It was also my introduction to Newfoundland’s colourful history, here seen through the eyes of Joey Smallwood, the “last” father of Confederation, who is in a powerful and conflicted relationship with Sheilagh Fielding, a reporter and columnist. Later I read Johnston’s The Custodian of Paradise, in some ways a sequel and also captivating. Johnston has become one of my favourite authors, deft with language and able to create truly interesting characters and story lines with unexpected turns. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up A World Elsewhere.
This time the ferocity of Newfoundland in winter is sharply contrasted with “a world elsewhere,” a world so different that it seems fantastic. Vanderland, the setting for a large part of the book, is a massive castle in North Carolina built by Padgett Vanderluyden, a key character in the book. Van, as he is called, has befriended the main protagonist, Landish Druken, who is attending Princeton instead of staying in St. John’s and following his father’s plan for him to take over as captain of a very successful sealing ship. As over-the-top as Vanderland seems, Johnston actually bases the fairy-tale-like castle on the 250-room, 16,000-square-metre Biltmore House, created in all its eccentric glory on 125,000 acres by Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame) and Richard Morris Hunt for George Washington Vanderbilt in the late 1880s.
I once heard someone posit that literature teaches more about the world, and about more worlds, than does science. Certainly this book could have been titled “Worlds Elsewhere,” there being a veritable Venn diagram of settings and ways of life. Landish goes from his father’s comfortable house in St. John’s to Princeton, from poor student housing to Van’s plush student accommodations, with a body guard on site and champagne and caviar among the weekly deliveries, and from abject poverty in St. John’s to unheard-of opulence at Vanderland. He goes from the world of unattached men to that of fatherhood when he pays $50 to adopt a baby boy.
Although there are no repeat characters from Johnston’s other stories in this book, the acerbic wit and propensity to pun makes Landish seem to be channelling Fielding from Colony of Unrequited Dreams. It’s all very clever, if a bit tiresome in small sections. Johnston must be a hit at parties—or a brutal opponent in any conversation that gets a bit testy. And the pure, driving ambition of Smallwood shows up in this latest book as well, this time in the character of Van. Also common to both books is the odd relationship of children to parents or their equivalent. There seems to be no such thing as a “natural” parent in Johnston’s writing, nor a “normal” childhood.
Johnson’s facility with language and with his literary references can’t be overstated. Henry James and Edith Wharton make small but powerful appearances in the story. Lewis Carroll feels ever-present. And the cautionary-tale aspects of the story reminded me often of the Brothers Grimm. I won’t spoil the story by elaborating further, since it is most certainly worth a read.
- Reg Sauvages