Saturday, 18 March 2017

Guest Review: The Trout by Peter Cunningham

The Trout by Peter Cunningham
Published in the UK by Sandstone Press on the 18th of August 2016.

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Guest review by Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin loves fiction for the freedom to contradict herself and has been scribbling stories ever since she could hold a pencil. During her career as an NHS clinical psychologist her focus was on helping other people tell their neglected stories to themselves. Now that her short fiction publication count has overtaken her age, her ambition is to write and publish enough novels to match her shoe size. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails (my review here), was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize and I am looking forward to Underneath, Anne's new novel which is due to be published towards the end of May.

Anne's rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Alex and Kay began their relationship many years ago in Ireland. His father, a well-respected doctor, is immensely proud of him until the day Alex meets Kay, a meeting which changes Alex’s life and his relationship with his father forever. Rejected by his father and his friends, Alex and Kay eventually settle in Canada to lead a normal family life. Normal life, however, is only a thin veneer covering a world of childhood secrets and lies and a letter arriving out of the blue triggers a long-buried guilt in Alex, leading him to risk all to track down its secrets. In a spellbinding story of one man’s search for the crucial secret locked in his memory since childhood, The Trout bursts up through the conventions and falsehoods of the past and hangs, beautiful and shimmering, in the clear and vital light of truth.

Anne says: Alex and Kay have traded in thirty-year careers in Toronto – he as a teacher and she as a psychotherapist – to pursue more creative pursuits in rural Ontario, but things aren’t working out as they’d hoped. The financial crash has put their travel plans on hold and, alongside her painting, Kay is working part-time at the hospital in the next town, perhaps as much to escape their limping marriage as to boost the household’s economy. Both their Irish childhoods were overshadowed by early parental loss and she wonders if, at nineteen, they married too young. Alex sees that “her glance … contains sadness, as if she is harbouring personal regrets, or fears that our happiness is never more than provisional” (p9); she is frustrated with his failure to seek help for panic attacks and depression.

Their mutual dissatisfaction comes to a head when he is decidedly unenthusiastic about the proposed publicity tour for his recently published novel, Sulphur, loosely based on his own childhood, featuring a boy out fishing with his father. Alex, as narrator, tells us that Kay hoped that (p18): writing the novel would be a catharsis for me, that it would amount to a form of self-analysis that might help me come to terms with my problems. It seems the opposite has happened; I have become even more eccentric.

Although Alex’s father disowned him thirty years earlier, he is still desperate for parental approval, and has fictionalised their relationship “not to tell the truth but to please him” (p60). This prompts Alex to travel back to Ireland in search of the reasons for his recurring sense of guilt and shame, and the side of his father that didn’t make it into his novel. It also, in the shape of a childhood acquaintance seeking acknowledgement or revenge, catalyses the thriller element of the novel in which an eccentric neighbour proves overly interested in the comings and goings of Kay and her grandson.

Not being a fisherwoman, I was relieved that the pursuit of the trout serves as a metaphor, both for Kay’s stalker and for the events from the past that Alex has tried to forget. So it’s testament to the quality of the writing that even I enjoyed the short paragraphs on the intricacies of fly-fishing, such as (p72): Fly fishing allows man to revert to his state of being a natural hunter and to stalk his quarry as he has done since memory began. Fly fishing allows man to act out an elemental part of the forest glade that lies within us all.
(This review is abridged from a longer version on Annethology.)

Thank you Anne!

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