IT'S A PLEASANT change to say something nice about a book that has been almost universally trashed. Michael Ignatieff invites attack because of his high profile as a TV star in Britain and his family connections in Canada, but his novel Asya (Viking, 309 pages, $27.99 cloth) deserves to be read on its own considerable merits. Viking has dressed Asya up like literary fiction, but actually the book works best as historical romance. It tells the very engaging life story of the Princess Anastasia Galitzine, a narrative filled with adventure, politics, intrigue, and many varieties of love, lust, and affectionate comradeship. Born on the first day of 1900 and living until 1990, Asya is personally involved in the Russian Revolution, the First World War, the espionage between the wars, the Second World War (including Vichy France and the BBCs wartime service in London), and finally the turmoil in Russia in 1990.
Ignatieff develops Asya's character from the outside, and, yes, he has her bite her lip, gaze longingly, etc., like any romance heroine. In fact, throughout the book scarcely a romantic detail is spared, whether in the wallpaper of a room or the rakish tilt of a wounded soldier's bandage. But Asya is a real page-turner. It deserves the place of honour on the beach or bedside reading list, and a long and healthy life as a glossy paperback.
Bahama Heat, by Barry Estabrook (St. Martini's, 314 pages, $19.95 cloth) is another excellent choice for the beach bag. A mystery set on the Bahamian island of Andros, it involves a Miami TV evangelist and his brother, drug smugglers, US Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, local citizens, and an assortment of other actors. The two central characters are especially convincing. The Reverend Miles Farnsworth is a sincerely religious man, so stunningly handsome and such a gifted preacher that in his presence wallets open unbidden. On Andros, he runs a school called The Vale, and his love for his young charges is the weapon his envious, unscrupulous brother uses to make Miles assist his pseudo-religious self aggrandizement. The reader doesn't have to guess how the female protagonist, Stormy Lake, got her nickname - it's a Susan Sarandon role. Both Stormy and Miles are more complex than is absolutely necessary; as are many of the secondary characters, but there's enough detail about boats, drug running, airplanes, evangelists, and the DEA to make the plot both credible and exciting. Bahama Heat is an original variation on a well-understood and cleverly manipulated theme.
Bruce Hutchison's subject in The Cub Reporter Learns a Thing or Two (Douglas & McIntyre, 107 pages, $19.95 cloth) used to be more popular than it is now, journalism schools and electronic communication having eliminated the cub reporter whom the movies and comic strips of yesteryear taught us to know and love. Around 1917, Hutchison himself went to work for the Victoria Times, and this experience is likely the source of the teeming details about early-20th-century newspapers that he crams into his novella.
Not only does Tim Holt, the cub in question, learn all about the newspaper business as it was in 1911, but his expertise as a shorthand reporter inducts him into the conspiratorial world of politics as well. And that political scene, when Laurier was campaigning on the issue of reciprocity (the reciprocal lowering of trade tariffs between Canada and the United States), gives The Cub Reporter a certain contemporary resonance. The characters in The Cub Reporter seem to he refugees from Mariposa, but where Leacock's caricatures expose the foibles of human nature, Hutchison's expose the political sins of the burghers of Victoria and the party flunkies who come from the East to stage-manage local corruption. Somehow, reciprocity is not quite as funny as sloth or vanity, and cupidity in action in Victoria would be more amusing if it - and not politics were the main focus. Nevertheless, The Cub Reporter Learns a Thing or Two is a charming bagatelle from one of Canada's most distinguished writers.
Vic Wilczur, a well-known writer with a long career as a newsman and publicist, tries to pass along a similar message about human venality in The Influence Peddlers: An Ottawa Fable (Mosaic, 167 pages, $12.95 paper). However, the book is so poorly written and so incompetently edited that only the most dedicated will read it to the end. Wilczur admits having first finished the book "in the mid-seventies," Clearly, much of it was written in an earlier era, and the odds and ends added to bring this second draft into the '90s are glaringly obvious. Each of the chapters (which are called "fables") details a lesson in a naive young reporter's introduction to the hypocritical world inhabited by his superiors, an enlightenment begun in Montreal but accomplished mainly in Ottawa. The satire is worthy of a student newspaper, the allegory of a college skit. Only solecisms such as "the motor hotel located on busy Sherbrooke Street built by an international hotel chain" will sustain the interest of literate adults.
In many ways, Norman Ravvin's Cafe des Westens (Red Deer College Press, 216 pages, $24.95 cloth) is the only typical first novel in the group. The story takes place in Calgary. Ostrovsky, the owner of the eponymous cafe, claims he gave his place that name because he found the sign in a junk shop, but the original Cafe des Westens was a favourite haunt of artists in Weimar Berlin. Ostrovsky, his friend Martin Binder (an undertaker who drinks too much), and Martins son Max each try to work out, in a modest way, the meaning of their own lives and of life and death in general.
Cafe des Westens has many fine qualities. The poetic expressiveness of the language creates realistic human moods and evocative scenes; delicately observed sensory details build a portrait of Calgary's social and physical atmosphere; the three main characters are sensitively developed, not just in relation to one another, but as individuals; and many scenes are well crafted. Yet the book goes nowhere. The characters do not develop, no plot emerges, and the thematic material - about place, character, and the immigrant experience - is buried so deeply that it becomes significant only after the application of some scholarly muscle. But Ravvin shows great promise as a novelist, and Cafe des Westens is a fine first book.
Red Deer College Press is also to be congratulated on Cafe des Westens as a piece of book-making. inside and out, it is beautifully designed, a pleasure to handle, and effortless to read.