The Beautiful Place
by Lee Gowan
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 978-1-77187-208-9
Saskatchewan born-and-raised writer Lee Gowan has penned a thick new novel—The Beautiful Place—and it’s a beautiful thing. Gowan’s three previous novels have garnered much attention (Make Believe Love was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award), and his screenplay, Paris or Somewhere, was nominated for a Gemini Award. Currently the Program Director of the Creative Writing and Business Communications department at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, this award-winning author’s giving readers something completely different with The Beautiful Place, which delves into the sci-fi world of cryonics; the realistic world of failed marriages, 21st Century parenting, and dementia; and the ever-precarious world of art and art-making.
What Gowan’s done here is ingenious: he’s imagined an ongoing life for Philip Bentley, Sinclair Ross’s protagonist in As for Me and My House. Gowan’s tri-provincial sequel to that prairie classic’s told from the perspective of the minister-turned-artist’s grandson, also known as Bentley. The younger Bentley—a fired, semi-suicidal cryonics salesman, writer, and father of two daughters from different wives—is approached by a beguiling woman named Mary Abraham who “met Jesus in a dream and walked with him to a desert well” and “met Buddha under a tree by a river.”
Abraham’s also dreamed about the younger Bentley, and she’s on a mission: as he’s one of few who know where the cryonics company, Argyle, keeps the frozen bodies of the deceased, he must reveal this location so that she can extract her late husband’s disembodied head, because he posthumously told her that he “wished to be buried and that it was [her] duty to get him underground.” The younger Bentley must also try to appease his wise-cracking ex-wife and finance their rebellious 23-year-old daughter’s New York art school, plus figure out his own place in the world as the grandson of a famous painter (whose body’s also in The Beautiful Place). Bentley himself doesn’t believe in cryonics—“a longshot gamble at eternal life”—even though he was Argyle’s sales manager.
It’s complicated, as they say, but, Gowan adeptly directs this cast of disparate characters with their strange plights, and the often witty dialogue reveals why he’s such a revered writer. Upon the birth of a daughter, Bentley’s wife says: “She looks like a live roast.” Another character says “urologists always have such lovely personalities.” Speaking of his wife’s TV-star ex, the protagonist says: “He wishes he were indigenous; he wishes he were gay.” And it’s a hoot to read that Philip Bentley lived beyond Ross’s novel and became an artist with “pictures hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery next to Emily Carr.”
This book is a complex weaving of the real and the impossible, of hope and grief, and of dreams and hard realities. Though the protagonist believes that “The point of existence … was to vanish with as little trace as possible. Stay out of the frame,” this shimmering and beautifully-organized novel will ensure that its author, Lee Gowan, will not disappear within the lexicon of Canadian literary writers.
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