“Second Cousin Once Removed”
by Byrna Barclay
Published by Burton House Books
Reviewed by Ben Charles
$20.00 ISBN 9780994866943
Second Cousin Once Removed, written by Byrna Barclay and published by Burton House Books is an incredibly graceful read and a testament to the pure talent of this Saskatchewan author. The novel is a sequel to House of the White Elephant, which in itself was a critically acclaimed novel and the winner of the Whistler/Tidewater Award for Best Fiction in 2016. My estimate is that the sequel will draw equal acclaim, as it is a masterfully written historical fiction brimming with Saskatchewan culture, driven by an intelligent plot and an engrossing narrative.
The story follows Jesse Emma Burtonwood, a woman of East Indian descent living in Prince Albert, SK, and is in the midst of mourning the loss of her husband. The story begins in 1953 and follows Jesse as she traverses life in Canada, and forms a relationship with John George Diefenbaker during this tumultuous time in both her life and in Canadian politics. Much of the story also follows Jesse’s granddaughter, Annika Robin, a woman living in Saskatoon, SK. Throughout the story Barclay masterfully crafts both of these characters in such a way that is wonderfully unique, yet easy to follow. As Jesse and Annika face challenges such as prejudices commonly held in Canada during the time period and constrictive traditions for women living in a new era, the reader can vividly feel their frustrations, emotions and insecurities in a tangible way. That is not to say that Barclay’s novel is doom and gloom, as the book has a rather eccentric tone; it reminded me of Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins in some places. At other times, it felt as if I were reading soulful poetry or song lyrics. This held especially true in my mind during the segments in which Annika and her distant lover exchange letters, not only were the letters exquisitely written, but the narratives that unfold from them tell a story within themselves.
Not only is this novel a perfect guide to how descriptive writing should be done, but is also a total time capsule of the period that it is set in. If you or someone that you know is a fan of Saskatchewan history or culture, I would argue that this book is worth the read just for that aspect alone. Everything from the locations and careers of the characters to the brands and even some of the slang are used naturally in this novel. The references all feel like that they belong in the plot, and not as if they are shoehorned in just for the sake of having them.
In conclusion, Byrna Barclay proves once again why she is the acclaimed Saskatchewan author that she is. Jesse Emma and Annika Robin are complete delights as characters, crafted in the rarity that is such a unique story built in a familiar setting. This novel is truly a work of art.
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