Leduc’s risks work brilliantly

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June 15, 2013

The Miracles of Ordinary Men
By Amanda Leduc
ECW Press, 321 pages, $18.95
 
Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk

Amanda Leduc’s debut novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men, follows the lives of Delilah Greene, a young receptionist, and Sam, a thirty-something school teacher. The novel is written in parts and switches back and forth between the two characters; each of their stories unfolds separately over the course of ten chapters—until, inevitably, they meet each other.

Or perhaps it’s not the heartbreak that scares her, but the possibility. The possibility of a heart more than whole, or a life that reaches so far beyond what’s expected that you can’t see where it ends and forever begins.

***

“I wanted a small life,” Sam said, his voice low. The chance to touch a few lives, to love them deeply and carefully and well. To make mistakes and claw back from them a broken, humbled man, fusing back together.

Lilah left home as soon as she could to travel the world, leaving behind her dysfunctional mother and much younger brother, Timothy, who misses her terribly while she’s away. A decade or so later, Timothy is living on the streets of Vancouver and Lilah spends her afternoons looking for him. When she finds him, she tries to convince him to come home with her, to come see their dying mother who constantly worries about him. Timothy insists that Lilah doesn’t understand him, though the siblings’ love for each other is never in doubt. One afternoon, Lilah’s boss, Israel Riviera, asks her to dinner. This marks the beginning of an abusive relationship in which Lilah is confronted with her guilt, and seeks penance in every crack of Israel’s whip.

Meanwhile, Sam wakes one morning to find he has wings, which continue to develop over the course of a week. Few people can see the wings: a few priests, his cat, and one of his students. When he goes to a doctor, she tells him she can only see deep scars in his back. Then his mother dies unexpectedly. Sam, desperate for answers, reaches out to Father Jim, and alcoholic and the priest of his church when he was growing up. After the funeral, they spend their days questioning God, faith and the fine line between what makes a miracle and what makes a curse.

“You’ll know.” Father Jim reached across and took Sam’s plate and stacked it on top of his own. “And as to what you’ll do—well, that’s different, according to each and every man. Some of us are called to action and others to observe.”

Though the two stories read quite separately in the beginning, they come together masterfully in the end. Leduc’s choice of structure is risky, and it works.

Perhaps the novel’s greatest strength lies in which questions it seeks to answer and which it does not. What is the link between pain and the divine? Guilt and God? What are we meant to see, and what form does God take (if any)? Leduc never answers questions bigger than her characters—a humble and essential quality of the story.

Leduc has reimagined the homeless Vancouver street kid, the parent dying of cancer, the receptionist waiting for something bigger to happen. She has created characters we’ve met many times, but have never seen like this.

The poet Jack Gilbert wrote a poem in which there is the line, “Stripping everything down until being was visible.” This is exactly what Leduc has accomplished in this heartbreaking novel. And God, did she do it well.

Jenny Boychuk is a Victoria writer and reviewer.

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