canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by RM Vaughan
ECW Press, 2003

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

To date, my experiences of and in New Brunswick have led me to conclude that it is a pretty miserable province. Where else, for example, can you buy poutine in a can? Where else does a by-law requiring secondary exits in event of a fire result in houses adorned with doors lead only to open air, the supposed-to-be accompanying decks only partially, if at all, built?

Now before some proud NBer leaps to his/her home province's defence in light of this blatant provincial snobbery: It would seem RM Vaughan shares my low opinion of New Brunswick. Vaughan's second novel, Spells, set in New Brunswick in the late 1970s, is peopled with miserable, bigoted, willfully-ignorant individuals who live in miserable, stunted, culture-deprived towns. The main character, teen-aged Andy, is

Fat but dainty, motherless, a hobbyist with suspect interests who was afraid of dogs and Ski-Doos; pissy smelling...Andy kept Doline Street from sinking into the abject trashiness it richly deserved- because no matter how desparate or abused or just plain poor and ugly one became, one was at least not Andy. (p28)

Andy's best and only friend, for a while, is

a freakishly compact, low-slung, stub-legged, fifteen-year-old girl named Stacey Grombell, a girl who frosted her wire hair monthly and was almost pregnant four times before she earned her drivers licence. (p28)

Andy and Stacey meet in the men's washroom of a local restaurant as Stacey attempts to fish her shoes out of a vomit-filled toilet.

Such descriptions no doubt suggest that Spells is a miserable and depressing book and, to a certain extent, it is. But that misery and depression is leavened by humour (admittedly a fairly morbid and nasty humour) and the sort of touchingly pathetic nature of Andy and Stacey's relationship: "Stacey didn't know anybody who really loved anybody else. People were either easy to get along with or not, and you stuck with the ones you got along with. Like Andy" (p101). These are two desperate kids in a desperate place seeking solace and refuge in each other.

Besides their desparation, Andy and Stacey also share the 'gift' -- extra-sensory powers, the ability to cast (and make work) spells, to perform magic. The notion of magic powers may seem a stark juxtaposition to the gritty realism of above-described material, but Vaughan handles that juxtaposition quite well, seldom giving the magical elements too much credence or over-describing fantastical events. When something fantastical does happen, it certainly seems weird and creepy, but also entirely plausible in the fictional reality Vaughan has established. Even when Andy conjures Nekhbet, the vulture Goddess of Upper Egypt, to be his personal protector, it seems almost, well, logical.

It may seem that Spells is trying to be many things. It is: coming of age story, mythical fantasy, gothic romance -- I haven't even mentioned the coming out of the closet part or the Tutankhamen-mania and this review is already getting long. For the most part, these disparate elements are well-combined to create an intriguing and entertaining read, although I did find Stacey and Andy's relationship more interesting than Andy's infatuation and sexual encounter with his father's friend, Dan (the coming out of the closet part). The Tutankhamen-mania seems a plausible obsession for Andy, and his desire to visit the King Tut exhibit in Toronto, but the cell of mystic terrorists devoted to destroying the violators of Tutankhamen's eternal resting place seems excessive.

The novel would have worked just as well, if not better, without this plotline. Even if the idea of mystical terrorism is intriguing, there are only so many plotlines a 200 page novel can realistically contain. This may have been Vaughan's attempt to shift the focus away from New Brunswick but perhaps Andy outside of his home province is less interesting or deserving of our pity.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The Columbia Review.







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