Robertson Davies' new book Murther and Walking Spirits begins with this epigraph: "Printers finde by experience that one Murther is worth two monsters, and at least three Walking Spirits... where Murthers and Walking Spirits meet, there is no other Narrative can come near it."
Davies follows this advice to the letter in his fictional family history, which traces two centuries of the Gilmartin ancestry. If this sounds like another overdone generational novel, expect to be surprised.
Gil Gilmartin, a witty entertainment editor at a Toronto daily newspaper is as bewildered at his murder, in the opening paragraph, as the reader. Gil discovers his wife in bed with her lover-the Sniffer, a drama critic at the same newspaper. In a "fury, fed...by sexual excitement," the Sniffer deals a fatal blow to Gil.
Death, Gil soon finds, begins with a metaphysical trip to the movies. While the Sniffer, his very murderer, attends a prestigious Toronto film festival, Gil experiences an incomparable film festival in which his ancestors star. The subtlety, artfulness and capability displayed by the mystical film director move Gil. He can hear orchestral music, smell the scenes and even intuit the thoughts of the characters. Gil cannot turn away-he must watch the films of his personal history.
Davies' descent into Gil's past is sensitive, detailed and epic. Gil regards the films with a mixture of admiration and discomfort. The most intimate details of his forefathers' lives are revealed to him in stories which are tragic, pathetic and humorous-fleshing out characters who previously existed only as faces in old photographs.
Gil's ancestors make and lose many fortunes in Wales, America and Canada. A saloon-boy from deepest Wales becomes a well-to-do tailor, and the widow of a Major in the Revolutionary War must canoe up the Hudson River to safety in Canada.
Gil's growing appreciation and understanding of his family override the "reality" of his death. The loves, hates and petty problems of people long dead concern Gil as much as his own abbreviated life.
Thankfully, Davies' writing is sharp and talented enough that this epic saga is neither heavy-handed nor ceremonious. The narrative moves swiftly and fluidly from film to film, generation to generation. Davies' flexibility with time and use of the posthumous film festival keep Murther and Walking Spirits from being a pedestrian account of family history.
Davies' narrative style is playful to the end, and this sustains the book. Finally, the Sniffer is revenged, the present accounted for and Gil learns, ironically, to "Wake up, man! Come alive! Feel before you think! "The true joy of the novel is not in the final revenge nor even in the final lesson, but in the grace and wit with which Davies renders a history and in the sweet and artful confusion of Gil's afterlife.