June 12, 1999
A Review of
A Witness to Life
Terence M. Green
(Forge Books, NY, 240 pages)
(Reviewed by Kevin Kennedy)
As Terence M. Green's fifth novel begins, the narrator informs us, "I
was born in Elora,
a village some sixty miles northwest of Toronto, in 1880. I have been dead... for thirty-four years."
In A Witness to Life, acclaimed Toronto fantasist Green
draws us into Martin Radey's life
through a device -- shape-changing -- that owes much to Eastern and aboriginal spirituality:
Transformed into a starling, Radey joins a flock on a time-travelling exploration of his own life.
"We rose up in a cloud of shimmering ink blots, without sound, the world, patchwork, spread
out below us."
And what an odd little life it is. Radey is an Irish Catholic, one of
a family of 13 children, who
spends his life bumbling around, getting up to nothing much. He's a disappointment to his first
wife and children, an unambitious worker who retires as a receiver at Simpson's (if this name
means more to you than just the cartoon family, you're definitely old enough to enjoy Green's
portrait of Toronto in the first half of this century) after 30 solid, unspectacular years of employment.
He merely wants to be looked after by the women in his life, although
that is not his destiny.
He is the epitome of the stereotypical Irishman who never leaves his mother 'til the day he marries.
His wife picks up where his "sainted' mother left off, allowing him to remain ill-adapted to, yet
somehow above, the quotidian demands of life.
But I thoroughly enjoyed following Radey's life as he made a mess of
it, and clearly the credit for this lies
with his creator. Green is a lyrical, contemplative writer whose fantastic tendencies are held firmly
in check by the realism demanded by this fictional biography. Striking a delicate balance between
fantasy and reality, the author lifts the mundane into the realm of the spiritual.
As a starling swooping through his own life, Radey gains an element
of wisdom -- acceptance -- by
witnessing key episodes. Radey-as-starling admits he doesn't comprehend his life, but he "accepts
what has happened... Perhaps acceptance is the beginning. Maybe understanding never comes."
Each of the starling chapters is prefaced by a quotation from Thomas
Merton, whom Radey
meets in a monastery. Merton suggests that "if you enter into the solitude of your own heart, you
can go beyond death even in this life, and be a witness to life... It is a process, not a destination."
This, and Radey's other conversations with Merton, are a balm to his sore heart as he faces up to
the sad truth of his life: "How (does) someone with so much family end up so alone?"
If you are not the contemplative sort, this novel still holds much to
enjoy, particularly its detailed
portrait of Toronto in the first half of the century. As someone who has spent the latter half living
in this town as it struggled to grow into a city, I'm thankful to Green for these glimpses into
the early days of my home. Indeed, the fact that I live in the very neighbourhood where much
of the Radey family settled makes the book seem a lengthy conversation with neighbours
of very long memory. Green's Joycean celebration of Toronto is worth a shelf full of
histories. It comes alive in a way only the best fiction can, allowing the reader to be a witness
to the life of Martin Radey and the city he called home.
(Kevin Kennedy is a Toronto writer and teacher. He is working on his first novel.)