Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
You’ve got to be careful with writers as talented, articulate, and well read as 2015 Giller Prize winner André Alexis. With all the themes, allusions, references, and symbols they inject into their writing, it can be hard to know when they are serious, when they are joking, when they are making a point, or when they are just leading you on. Of course, that’s part of the fun!
Longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Days by Moonlight is the fourth instalment of Alexis’s five-volume “Quincunx Cycle.” The word quincunx should be warning enough. The OED defines it as “an arrangement of five objects with four at the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth at its centre.” So these works are supposed to add up to something—four books and then a last one at the centre, bringing them all together.
Each of the five books in the Quincunx Cycle is also apparently dedicated to a single theme (according to Alexis’s Wikipedia page): faith, place, love, power, and hatred. So far we have three: Pastoral (2014)—place, Fifteen Dogs (2015)—faith, and The Hidden Keys (2016)—power. Ring, which was supposed to be the third (love?), but now will be the last, and has been designated by the author as the one to sum things up, even though Days by Moonlight has been designated the fifth book in the series, confirmed by the printed words “Quincunx 5” at the end of the narrative.
To confuse matters more, Days of Moonlight seems clearly to be about love. Readers will simply have to wait for the last volume to see how Alexis ties things up.
Days of Moonlight is ostensibly a tour of southern Ontario by Professor Morgan Bruno to interview people who knew the poet John Skennen, whose biography Bruno is writing. Skennen is presumed to be dead, though nobody really knows for sure. Bruno is accompanied by Alfred Homer, the son of one of Bruno’s oldest friends. Alfred is still dealing with the emotional double-whammy of having lost his parents in a traffic accident a year earlier and, more recently, of having his girlfriend walk out on him. It is Alfred who narrates the story.
The pair set off from Toronto on a five-day junket in the countryside to the north and west of the city. The aim is to visit a number of small towns where Bruno has scheduled interviews with friends and relatives of Skennen. They first head for East Gwillimbury and from there zigzag from town to town, ending up in Barrow. The names of the towns are all real, but it is doubtful that any current resident would recognize what Prof. Bruno and Alfred see and experience.
For example, Nobleton holds a yearly celebration of its pioneer heritage by having a competition to build a cabin, letting the winning structure stand for a year then burning it down to start again. In Coulson’s Hill, they have an annual “Indigenous Parade” where spectators dressed as Indigenous people get to throw tomatoes at figures on the parade floats dressed as the Fathers of Confederation. In Schomberg, which is mostly inhabited by descendants of former American slaves, no one speaks during the day, employing an idiosyncratic sign language to communicate. Feversham is inhabited almost completely by clerics of diverse religious denominations. And in New Tecumseth is the Canadian Museum of Sex. Who knew what sorts of unexpected—and very strange—things lay along the tranquil back roads of rural Ontario?
The people they meet tell stories not just of the poet Skennen, but also of their own lives and loves. It is these stories that take up most of the first half of the book. They flesh out Prof. Bruno’s understanding of John Skennen but they also introduce aspects of what it means to love. Other emotions are there, too—grief and sadness as well as joy and disappointment.
One of these stories tells of an enigmatic woman, Carson Michaels, who long ago left a string of suitors disappointed because they could not answer the question she posed to them, at least until John Skennen showed up. It turns out that Skennen is very much alive and his reflections upon his changed life form the crucial pivot to Alfred’s journey
Alfred dutifully takes notes, but as this tour of a “shadow” Ontario continues, he gradually shifts from being a passive listener to other people’s stories, to experiencing what is happening to himself. He becomes more introspective and his emotions now come forward.
It turns out that Alfred grew up in this area, but what used to be so familiar and bland is now different. And gradually he comes to look at these familiar things as if seeing them for the first time.
Alexis plays around a bit. He likes to dabble in the unexpected and omits information when he likes or delays it until it is needed. One character, the curator of the Canadian Sex Museum, dresses with gender ambiguity and is never identified as male or female. The reader learns Alfred is black only halfway through the novel. And Alexis also dips into the mythical and the occult. One character tells a story about a friend who was the lover of a Belgian witch. Alfred has a dream about a encountering a female werewolf.
Occasionally Alfred remembers some of Skennen’s poems he had memorized long ago. One, “Johnson Grass,” is recalled twice, but in the second version all the nouns appear upside down in his mind, except the gerund “knowing.” The poems are meant to give insights into the themes of the book, naturally, but they also raise questions—of course.
There is a point, or rather several points to all this. Alexis is forcing the reader to leave normal expectations behind, and the rather occult ending reinforces this. In this way Alexis brings out the nuances of the emotion of love, both the positive and negative.
André Alexis is a beguiling writer, and Days by Moonlight is an entrancing read, both for the images it creates and the questions it raises. But be prepared to have your expectations of what is normal challenged
Days by Moonlight is published by Coach House Books.