Book Review – Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

I first read this book for one of my undergraduate classes. I don’t remember the course but I do remember the fact that I highly enjoyed it and thought it was different. Just last week I decided to read it again, because I had largely forgotten what the plot was, and it turns out the story is as good as I remembered it.

Published in 1970, Fifth Business follows Dunstan Ramsay from childhood to retirement age, all within the space of a little over two hundred and fifty pages. During that time we see childhood resentment and wonder, the horror of a world war, love, philosophy, and a man coming to terms with his own guilt. The title of the book refers to a fictional opera trope. In most operas there is a hero, a heroine, an ally, and an antagonist. “Fifth business” is the fifth character who does not play a major role yet nevertheless is integral to the plot. That’s what Ramsay is, and it is from his interesting point of view that the events of the story unfolds.

This review will consider the plot, characters, and narrative. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but I urge you to check out the book yourself before reading this review. Go ahead, I’ll be waiting right here.

Plot

Because Ramsay isn’t the main character it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the story is about. His best friend and rival is Boy Staunton, a spiteful little boy who grows up to become a powerful businessman. Boy also ends up marrying Ramsay’s teenage sweetheart, winning a little love triangle. Paul Dempster is another childhood friend who received magic lessons from Ramsay at the library, and eventually becomes a world-renowned magician experiencing many adventures around the world. It seems like either of these characters would’ve made for a more colourful story, and yet we get Ramsay’s point of view. Other than the war chapter, nothing of note happens; he becomes a scholar and does research on saints, and he records his interactions with the other two characters and their entourage.

Despite that, the story keeps you hooked. Part of it is wanting to find out what happens to Boy and Paul, but I think the secret is that we want to know what Ramsay thinks about them, and what his reaction will be to the things that are being foreshadowed.

Ramsay starts off as an interesting character in his own right because he is insightful and witty. His life isn’t one big amazing adventure like Paul’s, nor is he as charismatic or successful as Boy. Ramsay goes through the regular motions of life: he falls in love, he falls out of it, he gets into fights as a kid, he looks for jobs, he does his job and travels the world, he meets new friends and interesting people, and he takes care of an elderly matron. These things are normal, and that is what enables us to relate to Ramsay’s observations and emotions, which in turn makes the narrative engaging. Ramsay pours out his heart and thoughts onto each page, eloquently describing how our hearts would react to astounding situations, whether they be ludicrous or uplifting. There is no epic journey around the globe for Ramsay, but there an inner one, and a peek of the soul can be just as beautiful as a mountaintop sunrise or a clear blue ocean.

Characters

All the characters in this book are great. The diverse cast keeps things fresh, which is exactly what was needed since this story is being told only through Ramsay’s voice.

Mrs. Dempster is the enigmatic fool-saint, Leola is the damsel in distress, David is the son who can’t live up to expectations, Liesl is the disfigured and wise matriarch head, and there are many other characters with their own unique personalities. They are realistic in their individuality and mannerisms, though it is evident Davies enjoyed writing characters who have profound insights.

The star, of course, is Dunstan. One of the main themes of the story is his guilt in what happens to Mrs. Dempster in chapter one. Throughout the book he rationalizes the part he played in that event, amongst many others, and although he isn’t exactly an unreliable narrator, his inner conflict, as well as his self-justifications, makes him the most relatable character of the bunch. That is why this book is so different; the protagonist isn’t the centre of all the action, and yet he remains the most interesting character for the duration of the plot.

Narration

Here is where the author shines.

In past reviews books have been criticized for being monotone in voice, and dull in their narration, which would make this book susceptible to criticism, since it is told from the perspective of one character who isn’t a major player in the plot. However, the main reason that it does work is that Robertson Davies had oratory gifts that are deceptively simple. Here’s an example:

The person who was speaking to me from the last step of the stairs that led up into the theatre was probably a woman but she wore man’s dress, had short hair, and was certainly the ugliest human creature I had ever seen. Not that she was misshapen; she was tall, straight, and obviously very strong, but she had big hands and feet, a huge, jutting jaw, and a heaviness of bone over the eyes that seemed to confine them to small, very deep caverns. However, her voice was beautiful and her utterance was an educated speech of some foreign flavour.

Here is a single paragraph in which Davies describes an ugly woman. She ends up being quite an important character, and Ramsay even gets into a fistfight with her (which concludes as something of a draw) and sleeps with her in the same night. By the description alone she already seems interesting; what is this “misshapen” woman doing with the great Eisengrim? Even more impressive, this paragraph is nothing but telling, and somehow it’s fine. Ramsay’s own flavour is injected into the description, and so the woman may not be that ugly, but only ugly to Ramsay, and even that may be coloured by what he knows (and doesn’t know) of her. That is how you do intrigue; in the case of first person narration, colour the narrator’s descriptions as he actively describes them. It’s the perfect way to drop hints and foreshadow.

I chose a relatively inconsequential excerpt as an example, but the principles Davies used here is consistent throughout. We get Ramsay’s opinion on love, war, what it’s like to stare death in the face while simultaneously witnessing several miracles, and all of these things have personal and intimate descriptions, and yet the way Ramsay says it tells us much about his character, and others, and often they are clever, eloquent, and hilarious in their delivery.

In Conclusion…

Read it! It’s so good. I have learned that Fifth Business is the first of a trilogy, and I am making haste to read the other two. Davies’ prose is immensely satisfying. It’s like sipping nice glass of wine by a fireplace while your dog licks your toes. It’s warm and fuzzy, and sometimes it tickles, but it’s undeniably pleasant and relaxing, for the most part.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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