The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 17 January 2018

The Cunning Man

by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies was a prolific Canadian author who published a number of novels and plays through the last few decades of the 20th century. He died in 1995, not long after publishing this, his last novel, interrupting what may have become his Toronto trilogy. (This reader saw him give a funny and engaging talk at the Boston Public Library in 1989.)

In this sprawling book, Jonathan Hullah, our narrator, reflects upon his long life as a kind of holistic doctor, a brilliant diagnostician, and looked upon by his fellow professionals and patients as something of a sage. His peculiar diagnostic technique, while highly accurate, is seen as a bit of a last resort for patients unable or unwilling to address ailments that are tied to elements of their being, way of life and even spiritual outlook. Not to say Hullah is a spiritual man. Indeed, his wry way of looking at religion makes up much of the theme of this book.

We set out on this journey after the sudden death of a priest at the Anglican church Hullah attends. Then we jump forward and backward through his story, starting much later on, when he is interviewed for a nostalgic column that looks back upon life in this particular part of Toronto. Wasn't there some story about a saint there at the church? Hullah quickly tries to quell that notion, but then winds us through his youth, his education and friendships, the quirky lesbian women who rent out their stable to serve as his medical office, family ties and the mysteries of religion, music, fate, and, most elementally, health, both bodily and spiritual. (While Hullah dwells at length on the diagnoses of diseases, it isn't overly technical. One or two of his medical descriptions, though, will make more sensitive readers cringe.)

The book most strongly resembles the work of British author Anthony Powell, who also reflected on the endurance of relationships and the cultural context of an educated man in mid-century culture, for him British, and for Davies Canadian. Indeed, Davies made a project of producing engrossing novels about seemingly middle-of-the-road existences. But there is always a mysterious thread that runs through them. This book is near the end of Davies's career. Its tone shifts a bit throughout, and some surprises are left unaddressed. But the book is strong, sympathetic, witty, literate and often moving. Very much recommended.

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