Toronto in the first half of the century is feelingly evoked in Green's understated prequel to his well-received Shadow of Ashland, a novel based on his family history. A minor character in the previous book, the protagonist and narrator here (inspired by the author's grandfather) is Martin John Radey, an Irish-Catholic clerk who has been dead for 34 years. In spirit form, Martin attends the deathbed of his daughter, Margaret, in 1984, and moves back in heartfelt memory to recall the meager fortunes of his own life. Martin spends his adolescence exploring Toronto's bars with his friend Jock, spending money on booze, cigars and girls. Together they witness the 1904 conflagration that ravages Toronto's downtown. Then Martin meets Maggie Curtis, who is older and more worldly than his previous girlfriends; she reads Dreiser and supports women's suffrage. Their marriage produces two children and a silent dissatisfaction in Maggie. When she dies early on, Martin is a disastrous caretaker for their children, Margaret and Jack, who grow up mostly on their own. Here the novel goes soft--Martin's neglect is presented as excusable befuddlement, but the reader will surely ask whether Martin's responsibility can so easily be dismissed. After Martin remarries, to a woman who dislikes his son, Jack heads for the U.S. to find work and disappears from his family's eyes. After WWII, Martin enters the Gethsemeni Trappist monastery as an offering to Jack's disappearance, and meets Thomas Merton. Green's prose is sure and smooth, and the story is poignant. In the end, however, the ""witness to life"" is a solitary, sorrowful, haunted man who merely folded under the pressure of fatherhood and dies as he lives, with regrets. Agent, Shawna McCarthy. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999 Release date: 03/01/1999 Genre: Fiction
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