Because I was reading an ARC for The Parabolist, I didn't get a chance to see the book's package (the cover, right) or know anything about it beyond the fact that a friend from the publishing company sent it over to me. For the first half of the novel I didn't even realize it was a mystery -- or thriller, I should say -- and thought Nicholas Ruddock's writing reminded me of a Canadian Nick Hornby with a little Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother tossed in.
I'll have to admit that when I discovered Ruddock's writer/doctor angle, it did make me a bit weary -- I felt that Vincent Lam's debut was heavily over-praised, he's a good short story writer but I'm not sure that book was worthy of the Giller, and it certainly makes for a terribly mediocre, melodramatic, rambling, muddled television show. I honestly thought, "oh, yet another doctor who writes. Yawn."
Annywaauy, I'm happy to say that Ruddock won me over. Treading over familiar Lam territory, The Parabolist follows a group of first-year medical students. The narrative spins around itself, and around its characters like tidal waves. Time moves forward and back, perspective consistently shifts, and yet, I never lost my way. I enjoyed the fact that the book was set in Toronto in what I assumed was the '70s (it cost $.10 to use the telephone!), and the medical students were cloyingly interesting, their interests far ranging past the core science they're learning for their degree into poetry, writing, and social issues.
John and Jasper Glass take their first year classes with the beautiful Valerie Anderson. The Parabolist, Roberto Moreno, a disaffected young Mexican poet, lives next door to the Glasses -- he's staying with his aunt and uncle in Toronto, and after a series of coincidences, begins teaching the first years poetry (something about them having to be well rounded to be good doctors). A number of mishaps unravel their expectations and form the novel's central plot, slowly pulling in new characters, quietly dispelling of those who are no longer needed. There's a strange subplot that involves Jasper and John's odd professor of a father but that's really the only string that didn't get tied up or become terrifically unraveled by the end of the book (he's trying to publish an odd book on French phrases with a small university press).
In addition to the series of mishaps, there are also serious crimes. From the fun, flirty nature of the book, I didn't expect the violence. It's not your stereotypical crime novel, it's definitely a hybrid -- more Nick Hornby meets Law and Order Toronto with a sense of humour, poetry and some sexy students thrown in. Ruddock's pace is relentless, the book hums along combining the antics of the younger kids with the developing mystery (whose crime work is lead by Detective Andy Ames [If I have one complaint it's with the names, sheesh "Andy Ames," "Roberto Moreno," they're all a bit too neat, in a way]) until it reaches a slightly shocking conclusion.
As per usual, I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing too much of the plot. Let's just say that I actually read the last bit of the book a couple of times so I could be sure that I understood exactly what happened and even then, it's not 100% clear. That's not a bad thing -- the ending kind of balances what Ruddock tries to achieve throughout the entire book, that equilibrium between the obvious and the interesting, the cliched and the adventerous, the apparent and the surprising. On the whole, I enjoyed the book, with its focus on medicine and poetry, life and death, love and hate, obsession and compulsion, and look forward to seeing what Ruddock comes up with next.