Russell Wangersky, The Glass Harmonica

A basic law of literary motion goes something like this: if a story begins in a quiet, conspicuously peaceful neighbourhood, things are about to get shaken up. Long-buried secrets will rise to the surface like cream, maybe a public tragedy will bring the residents together, and, inevitably, nobody involved will ever be the same again.

So goes the debut novel from Russell Wangersky, which takes place almost exclusively on a sleepy, semi-fictional version of the real-life McKay Street in St. John’s.

The Glass Harmonica at least has the courtesy to bring the upsetting event—in this case, the murder, via snow shovel, of one of the street’s residents by a pizza delivery boy—as close to the beginning of the book as possible. The deed is done by page seven.

 Rather than sift through the fallout, however, from here the narrative circles way back and splinters, leaping through time and space as necessary to catch up with well over a dozen of the victim’s neighbours. Sometimes the stories are related to the man’s death; mostly they aren’t. The earliest thread takes place in 1980, and the last doesn’t wrap up until October 2006, as the pizza guy gives his plea in the Newfoundland Supreme Court.

There’s so much information to juggle—and so much that’s either inconsequential or just plain tedious—that a great sinking feeling starts to set in around page 50. Recalling the detailed map of McKay Street that stands in for a table of contents, I realized, with some dread, that I was going to have to spend time with every one of the people on this damn block before Wangersky would release me.

Those characters include the murderer and his victim, the retiree who witnesses the attack from his workshop across the street, a barhopping young woman who’s spent her entire life inside the same row house, a few out-of-towners, two or three elderly residents whose minds are slowly collapsing in on themselves, and various children and parents of the above.

By the time all of the pawns are in place, and all of the timelines and perspectives start to sync up, the larger story has indeed snowballed itself into motion. Some real questions about the nature of truth and empathy are on the table.

Good luck getting that far. No matter how juicy the material gets, it all gets suffocated by Wangersky’s exhaustingly well-mannered prose. Every paragraph is polished to within an inch of its life. Eloquent but hollow descriptions of leaves and landscapes abound—“There’s no smell like the wet smell of spring,” etc.

The Glass Harmonica is ultimately offensive in its very inoffensiveness, its insistence on never stepping on any toes or being provocative in any but the most familiar ways. It’s an extremely safe novel, despite all of its structural tricks and time warps, which feel more and more like intentional misdirections as time goes on.

Following all of these Rashomon-style narrative switches, the book’s final message isn’t that everyone has secrets, but something altogether more banal: everyone has feelings, and sympathies, and motivations for the things they do.

In other words, you can’t judge a book—or a street—by its cover.

Thomas Allen, 336 pp., $32.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, May 30, 2010)

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