canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Winter Gardeners
by Dennis Denisoff
Coach House, 2003

Reviewed by Scott Albert

Despite being centered on an investigation and legal proceedings, The Winter Gardeners is not a murder mystery. There’s jokes and gags in it, but it’s not a comedy. There’s love, but it’s not a romance. It’s not a science fiction, or a thriller, or a self help book. And when a book has managed to slip out of the taint of genre, the author can breathe a sigh of relief as we place it in our literature section.

The Winter Garden is Giggy’s cubist garden, which is supposed to resemble "Nude Descending the Stairs". The Winter Gardeners are the pseudo-family of misfits who fit together - Giggy, the fat matriarch; Jem, her effete nephew visiting from the United States; Cora, his friend who is slowly coming out of her shell; and Rob, the archeologist found in the basement stripped of most of his flesh.

It is this mystery - who stripped off Rob’s flesh and why? - that drives the narrative for most of the book. But the mystery, and the genre it implies, stays safely in the background. Like a guilty secret that you won’t admit but can’t forget. Instead, Mr. Denisoff concentrates on language and imagery. So much so that you think maybe he was paid by the word, or at least by the metaphor. He manages to draw you in with his tone, invoking that sleepy satisfaction of your third afternoon sitting by the dock on summer vacation. It’s quite hypnotizing, and by far the most enjoyable part of the book.

The book reads more like long form poetry than a novel - the characters are prone to intellectualize and dive deep into memories, even as the plot unfolds around them. The dialogue often takes long walks into the deep woods of thematic imagery, like this passage from a long exchange about the V pattern of a flock of Canada geese,

“You’re right,” volleyed Jem, tugging absent-mindedly on a lone chest hair. “Those big old geese could make a V from behind, and the could also make an R. Or an O. Or a B.” A single tear as plump as the central diamond tiara of the Infanta of Paraguay squeezed itself from the duct tucked into the boy’s lower left lid. “I do believe they could probably make just about any letter under the heavens and still make a V from below.” pgs 23-24

It’s this kind of dialogue, interspaced with visits and accusations by Constable Loch, that makes Mr. Denisoff’s book feel like a murder mystery played out in slow motion, with a cast of characters who can only understand what’s going on around them by refusing to look right at it. Instead, in between reminders that truth is a matter of perspective, we are given lists of what things are not. As if by crossing items off a list we would come to what a thing is. The problem is, like my mini-list of genres above, no list can be exhaustive, even one that continues for most of a page,

Her love of Jem seemed not to bubble up like a sporadic effervescence from an unplumbed well, nor to gambol rough and ready like glacial waters down a Rocky Mountain spring, nor even simply to cascade and glisten like a waterfall or a sheet of sunlight in a Kurdish sky; it seemed not to froth forth like a fleet of whales or rumble overhead like a herd of wild horses, nor to split apart like the smile of a freshly cracked watermelon, nor to slither as gently as a baby ermine making it’s silent way[...] pg 74  

I apologize for the abrupt end of the passage, but that’s as far as I could get.

As an antidote, I offer this next passage because it made me laugh,

“Mr. Waferly, could you not play us a little something on the piano? I refuse any more of this talk.” Agape fell the mouth of the boy. Play us something on the piano? Had he become an extra in a Joan Crawford film? pg 132

“It’s just an heirloom,” Giggy protested, but nevertheless scowled toyingly at her nephew. Jem dragged his feet inside like sacks of despondency. Soon ‘Chopsticks’ clattered onto the gazebo with the tempo of a drizzle.

“Oh, Auntie,” Jem moaned from offstage. pg 133

I don’t think the purpose of the book was to make me laugh. In fact, I would be surprised if Mr. Denisoff had me in mind at all when he wrote the book. Every now and then, the language got a little too sophisticated for me to follow - I occasionally misunderstood a metaphorical passage for a literal one, and vice versa.

No, like most writers (including me), the audience Mr. Denisoff had in mind was very much like himself. As has often happened in history, increasing wealth has brought to our civilization increasing specialization. Just as it is not possible to be a Chemical Engineer without going to school, it’s considered impossible to be an artist without spending six years in art school. Those without the special training, they claim, can not possibly understand their work.

And it’s this specialized audience that Mr. Denisoff had in mind - people who were as concerned with, like Mr. Denisoff and Ms. Atwood’s grandmother, the language.

Well, I couldn’t give two shits about the language.

It’s identity by exclusion. We are us because - thank God! - we’re not them. We’re literature because we’re not genre. We’re artists because they don’t understand our art. We’re Canadians because we’re not Americans. Even Mr. Denisoff’s Winter Gardeners are portrayed as noble because they are not the petty small-town people who gossip about them behind their backs. To a certain extent, we all have this siege mentality in us, but why make exclusion a building block of art?

Exclusion is the foundation of specialization. 30,000 years ago, someone in a place now called Iraq figured out that if everyone could be a priest, there would be no one to grow his food for him. (And, trust me, I’m pretty sure it was a man.)

What does this have to do with Mr. Denisoff’s book? Extremely little, but here it is - how do we, as Canadians, decide who writes books and who cans the tuna?

Now, through all this, Mr. Denisoff has been much smarter than me. He’s not new here; he’s been doing this for a while now. He has already responded to this not-really-a-review through his Winter Gardeners,

“The plot? But there is no plot, really; it is life. If that’s what interests you most, I fear... to think what it says about the rest.” pg 130

After all, anyone straight out of high school can write a plot. Or an on-line book review.







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