Book Review – Cataract City by Craig Davidson

I picked this book up at the Toronto Reference Library. It was sitting in the featured books section. The synopsis didn’t really hook me, but I took a look inside anyway. Even though I didn’t know it then, the first page, and incidentally the entire prologue, did a good job of convincing this was going to be a worthwhile story. Now that I’m typing this out loud for the first time, I think it’s a critical moment for a book, this first impression, to convince that the story contained within is real. Regardless of its genre, if the reader gets the sense that the novel has a world of its own, and will be sincere about it, then that’s the real hook, as opposed to the gimmicks like fancy words or controversial topics. Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, Cataract City is a dual coming-of-age story, following the lives of two best friends as they grow up in a sort of perpetually-down-on-its-luck type of small town. One grows up to become a police officer, the other a convict. In my opinion, the most important thing that the author succeeds at is in portraying the city itself as its own character. As the namesake of the novel, it was critical to convince readers that Cataract City was a living, breathing, entity with its own rules, quirks, and influence. This is what shapes the characters and events throughout the story, and what allowed me to become immersed with the novel.

Of the two narratives, Duncan Diggs is the more likable, or relatable, probably due to the current social attitude of EF THE POLICE. But seriously, it feels like Duncan gets more screen time, and because his point of view comes first, and is present for a good chunk of the middle, it’s easier to sympathize with him. Owen Stuckey (the other best friend) also has a tragic and interesting story, but it’s told through Diggs’ narrative, and so the sympathy and tragedy is a step removed, and unfortunately Stuckey’s character falls out of spotlight as a result. By the time we get Stuckey’s narrative again, it feels like a mere extension of Diggs’ story, and I was only eager to find out how things would turn out for Diggs. This probably has nothing to do with the content or prose. If the story was told with Stuckey narrating first, I’d probably be writing the opposite message here.

This was one of those books where I wasn’t devoted to the story until about 40% through. The beginning hooked me, and the rest was interesting (how Diggs and Stuckey meet, the stuff with their fathers) up until the abduction by Bruiser. During the whole lost-in-the-woods segment I kept wondering what the point of it was, because obviously the two boys were gonna survive; the synopsis told me I would follow them into adulthood. If the purpose was to strengthen their bond, I think the previous events already did a good job of establishing the two boys as best friends. Thus, it was only after this episode that I really cared about the characters, and consequently the story. I remember this happened during Diggs’ narrative as he sort of does a fast-forward of their time growing up, and Owen starts a relationship with Edwina but it Diggs that she ends up with. I think what happened here was that once the characters were shown to worry, be afraid, be jealous, and fight for things that were important to them, that was the point I started caring about them. There’s a lesson in character development here; put your characters in situations where their emotions can be observed, and you got a winner.

The ending was satisfying, and the stuff leading up to the end was alright. I understand that there was some parallel going on with events earlier in the novel, but like I said, the trek for the woods didn’t really do anything for me, and since the novel did a good job of convincing Diggs and Stuckey were blood brothers, I never thought their friendship was in jeopardy at any point during the novel. I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen to Diggs! My favourite trivial thing of the entire novel was how Diggs asked for The Count of Monte Cristo while in prison.

I would recommend Cataract City to you if you are looking for a quick read. Something that also interested me was how the author would portray the friendship of two boys all the way into adulthood, which is something most people can relate to, and this novel proves to be a good case-study when attitudes, social upbringing, social standing, and a girl comes between two bros. It’s an interesting read. The strongest point for me was the characters, and the inspired descriptions/metaphors here and there. Pick it up if you want a nice story about growing up, and holding on to things that matter.

This has been a gamobo review.


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