Review: Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald’s new book ‘Fayne’

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Audaciously large, a Hummer from a damask-upholstered historical novel, the 722-page “Fayne” interrogates and usurps integral aspects of the late Victorian era – sexuality, gender, class, science – through a vehicle reminiscent of a extinct Victorian specialty: the triple-decker novel.

Set largely in Edinburgh and Fayne House, an eroded mansion set on “a shifting network of swampy expanses” in the “contested country” between Scotland and England, MacDonald’s novel begins with a narrator, Charlotte , twelve years old, with an unearthly brilliance, describing an outdated domestic routine.

Besides the servants, her father – Henry, a “vegetarian” and “the embodiment of virtue” – is Charlotte’s only companion. She is more or less confined to the house, she explains, because of her “condition”, that of being “morbidly susceptible to germs”. On the anniversary of her mother’s death (an event shrouded in mystery; ditto for Charlotte’s deceased older brother), Charlotte’s life takes a drastic turn when Henry hires Mr. Margalo, a tutor.

Although Charlotte’s instructor leaves Fayne House abruptly (and without explanation: another mystery), a few weeks of conversations with him broaden her consciousness. Soon, Charlotte begins to question her father’s motives and various accounts of the family’s history.

After Henry calls for new gender-specific education, she learns a lot more about her condition, which has nothing to do with germs.

In “Fayne”, the family closet is stuffed with skeletons.

In a story that begins with letters in 1871, Charlotte’s mother Mae describes a marriage of convenience (from her American money to Henry’s pedigree, essentially) followed by misfortunes and apparent mental breakdowns.

Of course, nothing is as it seems.

Consistently, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s fourth novel (the first since 2014’s “Adult Onset”) straddles the line between finely crafted and overworked. Two-time Giller Prize finalist for Commonwealth Award-winning “Fall On Your Knees” and “The Way the Crow Flies” (she is also an actress, playwright and host), MacDonald struggles to handle the enormity of his project; constructed from so many bolts of literary fabric, it becomes unwieldy.

While fans of low-calorie fiction will balk at “Fayne’s” 100-plus chapters, hard-core readers can savor MacDonald’s humor, obvious research, and engaging parts of gothic tropes (rarely the “land of the gorse” has been such an ecosystem of dangers, legends, ghost stories and missing persons). A complex story of constraining forces and stifling norms, the size of “Fayne” allows MacDonald to tackle all kinds of Victoriana, be it Darwinism, education, psychiatry, sexology, cooking (and there has surprisingly fun bits about mutton), or the addictive laudanum.

The author’s liberal hand with exotic domestic terms – bag, epergne, cap, gasolier and crinolette, to count a handful – will please some but perhaps annoy others.

Likewise, the archaic constructions of MacDonald’s narrative result in Victorian literary pastiche, to dubious effect. Digesting them – “In his smile is the promise of compensations for the shrinkages of this deadly coil which Henry, Lord Bell, Seventeenth Baron of the DC of Fayne, had never imagined until he saw it in last April”; “Thus we made our way through the beautiful green frontiers, those disputed lands of old, their still dubious frontiers so different from the civilized concordance with the contradiction contained by Fayne” – we might be reminded of George Orwell’s plea for “avoidable ugliness”.

Despite the overabundance of material, MacDonald crafts an engaging, if overloaded, story. Faithful to his ancestors, “Fayne” criticizes society by indulging in melodrama and sensationalism. The romance has a lot to consider, and could have done with less weight (literally) and fewer decorative flourishes.

Brett Josef Grubisic lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. He published his first paid book review in 1994 and is the author of five novels.

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