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The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci

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The Origin of Species  by Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci will be appearing at the Charles W. Stockey Centre on Wednesday 15 April at 7:30 pm to read from his most recent novel.

Nino Ricci’s first novel Lives of the Saints is one of my all time favourites, and winner of the 1990 Governor General’s Award. His new novel, The Origin of Species, won the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

This is a story set in Montreal in the 1980’s with excursions to Denmark and the Galapagos. The hero of the story is Alex Fratarcangeli – a self obsessed doctorial candidate. We first encounter Alex in the foyer of his apartment building, as he is meeting Esther, a neighbour and general busy body, who has MS – and tells him all about it, and more. I found I disliked Alex on first meeting him and didn’t change my opinion as I read, but Esther genuinely cares for him, and the only kindness that he ever shows is to her. An unlikely relationship develops between Alex and Esther that continues throughout the novel, as Esther’s illness progresses Alex slowly – very slowly – does mature just a bit.

The title of the novel is purposeful – there is a definite connection to Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. Alex visited the home of Charles Darwin in Downe on a trip to England, and in the study where Darwin wrote. “Alex couldn’t have been in that room more than twenty minutes, yet his sense of it never left him.” As Alex struggles to complete his thesis he often thinks of Darwin, his life, and his beliefs, and his own trip to the Galapagos. The Galapagos is close to the top of my list of places I want to go during this life, but Alex’s experience there is not one I’d like to repeat. Drawn into the crazy – literally – project of another academic, Alex is lucky to live through the trip. Think of the film Jaws and you have an idea of how thrilling some of the scenes are.

Alex is also confused about his relationships with the revolving lovers in his life – one in Denmark, where the consequences of this affair – some years in the past  – surface with consequences in the present. I found myself with little patience for this selfish young man – perhaps my past-middle-aged grumpiness – or the fact that I have lived enough life to have experienced profound happiness and grief – and contentment, that this young man has not yet come to. Perhaps for Alex, living on student loans and grants for so many years in the world of academia, has contributed to his lack of ability to live in the real world – where people have to grow up and support themselves with actual jobs.

The setting in Montreal in the 1980’s reminds us of the days of the great exodus of English speaking Montrealer’s and businesses “If you don’t like the 101, take the 401” a slogan of that time. It was also the height of the AIDS epidemic. Alex teaches at a Berlitz language school to supplement his student grants or loans, and becomes friends with a gay man. Although Alex has sex with any woman who is willing he spends a bit too much thought on his sexual identity – Nino Ricci through Alex exposing the bigotry, and the prejudices we may not like to acknowledge, even to ourselves. Poor Alex, although he sees a psychiatrist EVERY DAY, never reveals anything worthwhile as he struggles with his demons alone.

Thank goodness for the humour in this book – albeit a little black. There are digs at literary icon Margaret Atwood, and the late Peter Gzowski, another sort of icon. I laughed out loud as Alex despairs ““Years from now he’d be teaching in Nanaimo or Moncton or Red Deer, God forbid”.

No danger for Nino Ricci – this big rich book might appeal more to younger readers than myself but it is one I will remember with affection.

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