Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Kevin Wilson, a tall, quiet, unassuming man, is a writer of considerable promise if he is to be judged by An Idea About My Dead Uncle. It is not surprising that the manuscript for his debut effort garnered him the inaugural Guernica Prize for the best unpublished novel in 2018. With tightly written prose, devoid of tropes and unnecessary political correctness, Wilson's story is what every novel should be—a portal to the imagination of its creator.
Jason Lavoie, a young Calgarian of mixed Franco-Albertan and Chinese heritage, is struggling. In part, he is stumbling forward out of a loveless childhood into the arms of women who show him a modicum of affection. In part, he is attempting to escape the mediocrity of low-wage employment through composing classical music, some of which is critically acclaimed. Most of all, he is seeking to validate his unfocussed existence by uncovering a family secret, one which just might have existential meaning for him. At the heart of this mystery is the turn-of-the-century disappearance of an uncle amidst the political and social upheaval of the Tiananmen massacres.
There is a dose of who am I, what links me to my mother's ancestral home. Fortunately, this is not over-cooked, and despite the half-Chinese heritage of the protagonist, the writing is decidedly not from a racialized perspective. Jason Lavoie remains the quintessential Canadian male lead—somewhat hapless, naive, reasonably moral but not above infidelity. Or at least that is the character that Wilson endeavours to arc into a much deeper hero by the end of the story. And China in Jason Lavoie's journey is a land of first gentle then intense discovery. Intricately blending the political with the cultural, the people with the teeming cities and lonely landscapes, Wilson portrays the Asian behemoth in a way rarely seen in Canadian fiction, and this is one of the delights of the novel.
Wilson's work is not for everyone. Indeed, the shift between a slow-paced chronology of Jason's life in Canada and the exoticism of a little-heard-of Chinese province and then Jason's Siddhartha-like pilgrimage to the far reaches of the country might be jarring for some readers. Perhaps, the novel is also delinquent in providing a strong fil conducteur and suffers from an over-reliance on the character arc. Certainly, enhancing the mystery of the disappeared uncle in the early chapters would have been beneficial. But these are small points. Every novel has some grist in the gears.
The Guernica Prize laurels will certainly give Wilson a solid start to his literary career, one well merited. And we can expect much more from this talented author.
An Idea About My Dead Uncle is published by Guernica Editions. It will be launched in September 2019.