Brian Moore was Canadian for a while, albeit a short while. Born in Ireland, Moore moved to North America in 1948. He lasted about ten years in Canada, before heading south of the border to California. Despite this brief visit, Canada left an impression on Moore that comes out in his novel the Black Robe.
The Black Robe tells the story of a Jesuit priest who is sent to discover the fates of other missionaries. After some persuasion from Samuel de Champlain, a group of Algonquin agree to accompany Father Laforge and his young aide. Throughout their journey both the ‘whites’ and the ‘Indians’ are confronted with the numerous stereotypes that existed in the 17th Century New World (and some that still exist today). Moore paints a picture of early Canada that is at times terrifying- the landscape, the obstacles, enemies and even friends offer little comfort.
The novel, well novella really as it comes in around 200 pages, is wonderfully written. A forte of Moore’s is characterization. My sympathies switched every ten pages, leaving me feeling that everyone was right (and also that everyone was wrong).
Overall, it is a great period piece, something much different than other fiction I have read about this time period. But, there was something distinctly un-Canadian about it. I have no other Canadian books to compare it to; it was closer to other foreign fiction I have read, like a less quirky, less sprawling version of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and even closer to Heart of Darkness, as the story winds its way towards the unknown. It felt less personal, less about family; which has become the most recurrent theme to date in my exploration of Canadian literature. Not that this is bad, the novel was a good read, it just re-affirms that to be (truly) Canadian you can’t be easily lured away by sunny California.
I have to stray away from Canada for book club, but will return shortly.