Book of the Month

Age of Hope
David Bergen
A Phyllis Bruce Book, HarperCollins
HC, 288 pages, $27.99

I was immediately drawn into David Bergen’s new novel by the arresting opening sentence.  “Hope Plett would certainly have married her first love if he hadn’t died in a plane crash minutes after flying at a low altitude over her house.”

 Hope marries Roy Koop instead, and The Age of Hope is her story of their life together for richer, when he owns a Steinbach-like large car dealership in a southern Manitoban town, and for poorer, when he loses everything, except her and his children, though the kids too have flown the coop.   

Money, or the lack of it changes their relationship, but most noticeably with others in their community who see Roy’s financial failure as a failure of faith, having given God some reason to withhold his bounty, while declining to show the couple any Christian charity or generosit. Another form of shunning if you like. 

Bergen does not write the same book twice, and there are subtle changes in style depending on the story he is telling. One thing that does not change is the absolute translucence of his prose, clear as water rushing in a mountain stream. The Year of Lesser would probably be the best comparison in his substantial backlist, though Hope Koop has the grace of a close shave, rather than the rough stubble and fire of the earlier novel.

 The story, and the female voice may be new to Bergen’s writing but the territory will be familiar to any readers of (mostly male) American fiction since the early twentieth century. Think Sinclair Lewis and his Babbit in Main Street, John Updike’s Rabbit, and Richard Ford’s (who reads with David Bergen at Thin Air tonight) Frank Bascombe. Except The Age of Hope is told from the woman’s, from the wife’s and mother’s point of view,  more familiar to readers of Carol Shields and Bonnie Burnard for example.

The tussles about the appropriation of voice continue, the strongest resistance in accepting the writing of white males about aboriginals or any experience outside of their suburbs or yuppie urban homes date back to the 80s when there was a virulent debate at a Writers Union of Canada annual general meeting with several of us bad boys in the back inventing a new politically correct generating station of fictional characters where aboriginals wrote aboriginal characters, women wrote women, black writers wrote black characters, queers theirs, etc., all down the line, the correct line because imagination should be held to account for the ills of society. I think of Gulliver. I digress.

I was convinced a man could write a female character when I read Richard Wrights Clara Callan, the stage set by Hardy’s Tess. Bergen took on the challenge of a white man writing an aboriginal character in The Retreat, a novel ignored, I think, because he took the chance, because he was white, and what the fuck did he know about Indians. Nobody, white, brown, or red wanted to talk about it. It would be an excellent text for Winnipeg or Regina high school teachers clarifying Romeo and Juliet.

Hope survives, in a condo on Wellington Crescent, which I read as a sly reference to Carol Shields, in the novel’s concluding section, “The Age of Hope.”  She becomes “contented with her life, and being contented felt guilty.” Of course she does, being an independent Mennonite woman living a worldly life in the city.

I don’t much care for rhetorical questions in fiction, especially when they are raised so a character can answer them in an internal monologue. This seems to becoming a trend, and one that Bergen does not completely avoid. This may be my own personal fetish while other writers decry the use of the semi-colon which Vonnegut has been quoted as saying was good for nothing but to “show you’ve been to college.”

 Contrary to Aritha van Herk’s condescending remarks in the Globe and Mail about Bergen pandering to a largely middle aged female reading public (a demographic that would include her, and ignoring his last novel was about a middle aged man) this very human story of a particular life, in a particular place, in a voice rarely heard, is a good read for anyone who is interested in other people, no matter gender or religion.  Hope Koop marks the age, with women’s liberation, and the movement from the country to the city challenging her understanding of her place in the world.

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