Review by Frank Moher
If Beside Still Waters seems like a bit of a throwback, that’s because it is; Barry Callaghan’s “new” novel is actually a revision of his 1989 The Way the Angel Spreads Her Wings. Oddly, his publisher has decided not to acknowledge this, either in publicity for the book or on its dustjacket. It has already been reviewed in at least two major Canadian newspapers as if it’s fresh as this morning’s snowfall, which is neither to the credit of McArthur & Company, who should make clear its provenance, or to those papers, who should have figured it out.
I would never knock a writer, though, for returning to an earlier work, for deferring to that inner gauge that tells him whether a book is really finished or not. It can be a dangerous business, though. Eighteen years later (as in this instance), the author has likely changed enough that revising is more like a potentially awkward collaboration between himself and a younger self. And, of course, there’s always the chance that he’ll make things worse.
In this case, the result is a draw. The Way the Angel Spreads Her Wings was a very fine novel. Beside Still Waters is a very fine novel — though not sufficiently different from its forebear to make clear just why Callaghan has come back to the story.
The books begin nearly identically, introducing us to Adam, a kid growing up in 1950s Toronto. The son of a wayward jazz musician, Adam lives with his might-as-well-be-single mom, who schools him in her world-weary views. “People who’ve got stars in their eyes hurt other people,” she says, turning an otherwise simple astronomy lesson into a lament for her marriage.
Adam has better luck in love, and sex, especially with his girl-pal, Gabrielle. (The earlier book unfolds somewhat differently, but I’ll set it aside for now.) They deflower each other, then become genuine intimates, on the run from both the strictures of Catholicism and the turbulence of their home lives. Meantime, in alternating passages, Callaghan reunites them as adult lovers, far from Canada, but not far enough to be free of its lodestone of memories. Gabrielle in particular is haunted by her mother’s suicide, and the dark events behind it; she is gradually revealed to be the sort of tragic heroine beloved of 19th-century authors, though in revising Callaghan seems to be at pains to make sure she is more than just a romantic object, or the constantly eager sexual receptacle she was in the previous novel.
He’s not averse to romantic gestures, though, or extravagance of language that is one of Beside Still Waters chief pleasures. Even while he has cut the fat away from his prose, Callaghan has extended its reach to capture his characters’ turmoil from the inside out. Gabrielle eventually ends up working amongst lepers in Gabon – as tragic fates go, you can’t get much more florid than that – where Adam tracks her down for one last reckoning.
As usual, they end up in bed together. “With her eyes closed again, she reached for his body, reached for an embrace even as he felt that she was drawing farther away from him, away into her own world, whispering Adam Adam Adam, rolling on her side with a deep sigh, falling asleep with one arm hooked behind her head.” By the end, they are more like a wizened old couple than the erotic adventurers of Callaghan’s earlier treatment, for whom there was no problem that couldn’t be solved by a good you-know-what.
I’m not sure, though, that Gabrielle shouldn’t have remained a fantasy female. That approach had its own integrity; The Way the Angel Spreads Her Wings was a novel of its day by a man’s man of a middle-aged writer, and there was nothing wrong with that. Here, she’s not finally much more animated, and a lot less poetically useful. One can see Adam plunging through jungles for one of the seraphim; not so much for an angel of the lower orders.
In the end, I’d rather have read a genuinely new novel from this masterful writer than this redo. But if Barry Callaghan figures he has unfinished business to attend to first, I guess we’ll just have to wait. Meantime, a word to his publisher: whatever the results, a senior novelist wanting to go back and get right a book that was pretty right in the first place is itself a great story. Tell it.
This review first appeared in The National Post.