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Review of Fifth Business by

Fifth Business

by Robertson Davies

5 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Reviewed .

Shelved under

I do not like the cover on this edition of Fifth Business. I don't remember when I first read this book—definitely in high school, but I hate to say that it's now long enough ago I can't remember the exact grade. I didn't like the cover then, and I don't like it now. There is just something unsettling about the composite of faces. I interpret it as a representation of the various people we are, at different stages of our life and even simultaneously, an allusion to the Jungian archetypes that become more pronounced in the later books in the trilogy. Nevertheless, I just disturbs me. And I suppose I could have bought one of the newer editions, which have quite different covers, as I did for World of Wonders. Yet I got this for free from BookMooch—and besides, I won't judge a book by its cover.

The best way I can explain how I feel like Fifth Business is like so: it's the kind of book I have no trouble imagining as a movie, but I know that if one were ever made, it would almost certainly suck. (it appears that the rights were tied up in legal hell for thirty years). I just don't see how a movie could adequately capture Dunstan Ramsay's narration, and it's Dunstan's voice that makes Fifth Business so powerful.

Dunstan is not the sort of character one would imagine as the main character of a novel. (This is, in fact, rather the point of the title.) He lives on the periphery of the lives of other characters who seem like they are up to things much more interesting than anything he does. From the rich and powerful Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton to the mysterious magician Magnus Eisengrim, Dunstan is a witness. This is obvious from the first scene of the book. A young Boy throws a snowball at Dunstan, and in an example of Boy's vicious streak, it has a core of rock. When Dunstan ducks, the snowball hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster instead, an event that reverberates through the entire novel.

As a narrator, Dunstan is everything I enjoy. He's self-deprecating, but not to the point of whining or over-extending his attempts at humour. He passes judgement on his younger selves, but that judgement and his contrition are genuine, rather than smug or superior. And Robertson Davies made Dunstan a writer, which provides perfect justification for the clever, indulgent little passages like this one:

I thought I was in love with Leola, by which I meant that if I could have found her in a quiet corner, and if I had been certain that no one would ever find out, and if I could have summoned up the courage at the right moment, I would have kissed her.

Dunstan appears earnest and honest, confessing to his foibles—his childhood lust for Leola, his sense of responsibility for Mrs. Dempster's condition and Paul Dempster's new life—but one of the themes of Fifth Business concerns how we conflate myth and history to recreate ourselves. And so, Davies has gone a little meta on us and done the same with Dunstan as the narrator. As he recounts his life to the headmaster of Colborne College—the entire novel is actually epistolary—he is creating a version of himself, a myth of himself. We all do it, and that is one of Dunstan's points.

No character better exemplifies this than Boy Staunton, who might be my favourite character (other than Dunstan). In fact, Dunstan is at his best in his scenes opposite Boy. Though Fifth Business lacks an antagonist per se, Boy certainly serves in that role on occasion. He is a sometime rival, sometime ally of Dunstan, and they are friends almost as much out of necessity as out of any sense of kinship or fondness. Dunstan and Leola are Boy's last links to the village of Deptford, and I think Boy keeps Dunstan around for that reason.

Boy, of course, begins reimagining himself by dropping his first name, Percy, and shortening "Boyd" to the more youthful "Boy." He quickly corners the market on sugar and soft drinks and candy and graduates into the land of corporate tycoons who own fabulously rich companies that do nothing but manage other fabulously rich companies. When the Second World War breaks out, Boy goes into politics. He essentially becomes detached from reality, his vision of the world skewed by his own eerie success. Dunstan is the only one who ever attempts to talk sense to Boy, and that seldom works.

Dunstan emphasizes Boy's petulance. Of course, we shouldn't necessarily take Dunstan at his word, but this is what makes Boy one of the most interesting characters, and one of the darkest. He has climbed so high, but when he is finally re-united with the now-adult Paul Dempster, he falls. He has edited out any memory of ever throwing the snowball that led to Paul's premature birth, but deep down inside, he's still the capricious, spoiled boy. Just as Dunstan is a curious, serious, yet sometimes altogether-too-credulous boy who doesn't quite belong in our society.

Other than the narrator, the other awesome thing about Fifth Business is that it's short. This may sound like a surprise coming from me, a guy who loves doorstopper fantasy novels and recently complained that Liars and Saints, at 260 pages, could not do its multi-generational story justice. My copy of Fifth Business is only 266 pages—but in comparison, it is the autobiography of a single man. It is intensely, almost compulsively purposeful in scope; Davies fanatically reins in any attempt by Dunstan to comment at length about matters of world politics or history. The entire First World War takes only a single chapter, but it works for the type of story Davies is trying to tell. Unlike Liars and Saints, where I felt like I was marking time until the end of the book, every moment of Fifth Business is alive and full of potential.

I can't help it: it's also Canadian, OK? And not aggressively Canadian, like so much Canadian literature, nor politely and apologetically Canadian. But I feel that growing up as Canadian was an essential part of making Dunstan Ramsay the character and narrator that he was. From our immediate involvement in both the World Wars, to Dunstan's Victoria Cross, to Boy's bid for the Lieutenant-Governorship, this book is filled with aspects of Canadian culture. Fifth Business isn't just good, or great, or even simply amazing. It's an iconic book, one of few that I feel deserve the label of "classic."


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