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Thoughts on “The Cunning Man” by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies was first recommended to me by a fellow employee at my first bookstore job. She didn’t recommend him to everyone, she said, but for the right person, he was a treat. She thought I might be one of those people. Since then, I’ve been picking up his novels as I’ve come across them at library sales and used bookstores. His Deptford Trilogy, which I listened to last year before I came back to blogging, was excellent. So when I put my TBR Pile Challenge list together, I knew it had to include something by Davies.

About the Book:

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies cover (erinreads.com)For many years, Dr. Jonathan Hullah has been happily ensconced in a converted stable in Toronto, where he runs his unique medical practice on the first floor and has well-appointed living quarters on the second. He has his few friends and spends his time treating those patients whom other doctors cannot seem to cure.

Then a young journalist named Esme shows up, asking questions about St. Aiden’s, the old church that stands next to Hullah’s home, for her series on Toronto’s history. As she pries into the past, Hullah records in his case book — the novel — his memories, thoughts, and conjectures. He also debates which of those he should disclose to Esme and which are better left buried.

Because, you see, something strange happened at St. Aiden’s many years ago: an elderly priest fell down dead in the middle of Holy Communion. Was he a saint, as many came to believe? Or was something else going on?

My Thoughts:

My bookstore coworker was right: I do, indeed, find Robertson Davies rather delightful. The Cunning Man, for instance, begins this way:

”Should I have taken the false teeth?”

I’m not sure a more intriguing first sentence was ever written. How can you not want to read on?

If the novels by Davies I’ve read so far are a fair representation, his stories have at their center a bit of a mystery. They’re not mystery novels by any means — I’m not such a fan of those — but there is a thin filament of something at their core around which each story is loosely built. In the case of The Cunning Man, that mystery is the death of Father Hobbes. The actual mystery is just a part of the book, though. Around it loop Hullah’s back story, present-day plots, and even letters from Hullah’s neighbor to a friend in England, which seep with a personality quite different from that of our narrator. The book has that central mystery, but it is so much more than just that mystery. And the story doesn’t end when the mystery is solved. Since it’s not the point of the book but more one component of it, the narrative structure doesn’t hinge on its investigation and resolution.

From what I’ve read so far, I think Davies is a master of creating fascinatingly complicated main characters. He fills them out with interests and theories that serve as story lines in and of themselves, and there are always bigger issues at play should you care to zoom out to that level. He even sets them within their own belief systems. You can really understand how a character sees his world, why he reacts as he does, where he is likely to stumble.

The secondary characters Davies creates are just as interesting, even if less time is necessarily devoted to them. He’s quite skilled at figuring out how to give readers a secondary character’s perspective on a situation so that you’re not relying completely on the main character’s word. In The Cunning Man, for instance, the whole middle section of the novel alternates between the letters I mentioned earlier and chapters by Hullah that provide commentary and fill in the gaps. And since the letter’s author is an etcher, Hullah adds whimsical footnotes to explain where illustrations appeared in each letter and what they depicted. It’s wonderful.

Davies’ writing is just erudite enough to be satisfying without being overly dense. It’s the kind of writing you slow down just a little to process and enjoy. It works particularly well on audio, for me at least, which is how I “read” The Deptford Trilogy, but it’s lovely to read as well.

I’m happy to report I have two more trilogies by Davies on my shelves as well as a short book of ghost stories and a nonfiction title by him whose subtitle is “Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books.” I’ll be spacing them out for maximum enjoyment!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

While not as good as The Deptford Trilogy in my opinion, The Cunning Man is less of a commitment and still a fair taste of what Davies has to offer. I agree with my bookstore coworker that Robertson Davies probably isn’t for everyone. If he ends up being for you, though, you’re in for a treat!

Your Turn!

What authors do you love who aren’t right for everyone, but who delight their fans to no end?

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  • http://www.emeraldcitybookreview.blogspot.com emeraldcity

    Well, I adore Robertson Davies; I’ve urged him on many people, and I never thought of whether he was right for everyone — is that the case with any book, actually? However, I know there are books I love that take a certain amount of commitment or explore esoteric interests that not everybody has: Possession by A.S. Byatt and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke are two examples that spring to mind

  • Trish422

    That is most definitely an attention-getting first sentence. :) I will have to add Davies to my TBR list.

  • http://remadebyhand.com/ erinkurup

    emeraldcity  No, I definitely don’t think there’s one book that’s right for everyone! I’ve found, though, that some have more general appeal than others. When I worked in a bookstore, there were titles I could recommend without too much worry to just about anyone looking for a particular genre, whereas others I’d hand out more selectively. I think I might put Davies in the commitment category, or maybe one related to quirkiness. And I’d put Possession and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in a similar category. Great examples!