Book Review – The Manticore by Robertson Davies

The Manticore is the sequel to Fifth Business and is part two of the Deptford Trilogy. In this novel we follow the narrative of a man named David Staunton as he comes to terms with important events that have taken place in his life, including a fated young romance, a distant father, uncertain lineage, a neglected mother, and a rational coming-of-age.

This review will consider the book’s plot, characters, and narrative. Reading the first book is not necessary in order to appreciate the second, but there may be minor spoilers in this review.

Plot

Going into this book, I was curious to read about David Staunton’s life. In the first book we get the impression that David is the son of a rich and successful man, Boy Staunton, who wasn’t necessarily the most attentive of fathers. Davey goes through a pretty traumatic childhood: the attempted suicide (and eventually death) of his mother, a strict upbringing, and a stigma of being wealthy (despite his father imposing a strict allowance). His father intended for him to take over his corporate company, and so had groomed Davey to be an entrepreneurial and sophisticated lawyer.

All of this is told in retrospect, spilling out through psychiatric sessions that Davey has consigned himself to after the death of his father. The premise of the story is that Davey is looking for meaning after the chance for reconciliation and approval from his father is snuffed out. What we get is the detailed life of a rich young man, who comes to terms with the fact that we must all choose to be our own person, regardless of other people’s (including our parents) approval, disapproval, indifference, or otherwise.

While Davey’s life isn’t as colourful or adventurous as Dunstan Ramsay’s (of the first book), it is still eventful and is charged with emotion and meaning. He eloquently depicts a life of wealth that is down-to-earth and conscious of how others perceive him. Overall he is a sympathetic hero, and like reading the diary of another, there is intrigue and enjoyment in reading about his first love, his first heartbreak, his encounters with injustice, how he gains and lose friends, his relationships with his sister, nurse, and Ramsay, and his reactions to his parents’ death. It’s a complete albeit summarized biography, and it is thoroughly entertaining.

One major disappointing plot point is David’s reaction to finding out who killed his father. He meets his father’s murderer and seems completely indifferent to it. We know who it is before David does, and there is tension when they meet for the first time, but it amounts to nothing. It’s not even the case that David forgives the murderer or doesn’t love his father, but rather that it just simply goes nowhere, which was anticlimatic and strange.

Characters

Davey is a likeable character and provides an engaging narrative. He is logical without being cold, and feels about things passionately without being a sop (despite what his psychiatrist says). As he is examining his own life we see how his wit and values colour his recollections, giving him a distinct personality and character.

One problem is that this is not what was foreshadowed by the first book. What we understand from Fifth Business is that David grew up in a dysfunctional household and later became an alcoholic, and there are no signs that this has affected him adversely as you read his book, which I thought was disappointing and ridiculous in the beginning (it turns out he’s a gentleman-alcoholic). But as you get further into the book, you see that while the domestic situation didn’t turn David into a serial killer or moody pessimist, it does influence his philosophy in life, and we the reader understands that what happened in his childhood severely limits how much he is able to live and experience life. Half a lifetime of shutting out emotions and dealing with drama has conditioned David to disconnect socially, hence his inclination towards the career of law, and his outward appearance of being unable to feel.

The rest of the cast are diverse and complimentary to David’s story. One of the themes of the novel is that it is possible to have more than one father in life. Father and son is a relationship that is defined by mentoring, love, guidance, and teaching by example what it means to be a man. In this respect David does indeed have more than one father in the forms of the homosexual and caring priest, Knopwood, the rational and calculating Professor Pargetter, and the enigmatic and family friend Dunstan Ramsay. He has a love/hate relationship with his sister, Caroline, and the family nurse, Netty, is a source of comedy and old-fashioned charm. Liesl and Eisengrim also make a return appearance, and they continue their mysteriously charming personas from the first book. We learn a little bit more about Liesl, but I’m guessing we won’t see the whole picture until the third and final book of this series.

Narrative

One can tell from the way this story is told that the author prefers first person past tense. Like Fifth Business, the story is told through one character recounting his entire life, and the style is well executed.

It gives Davies the chance to be witty, reflective, and philosophical. The context, after all, is that the character is going through psychiatry sessions, and the point is to analyze his life to find out who he is. Taking full advantage of the scenario, the author uses satire and inflection to comment on life and relationships in general. Although our lives won’t match up with David’s point for point, the observations are broad enough for most of us to relate to. We’ve all experienced unrequited love, we’ve all been disappointed in our parents at one point or another, and we’ve all had moments in our lives where we ask “what the hell am I gonna do?”. In The Manticore, David is the avatar, and as with all conflict, drama, and trouble in general, it is usually safer and more entertaining to watch someone else go through life.

In Conclusion…

This book isn’t for everyone. It’s more so a book of inflection and questioning, rather than adventure and daring. David uses the events in the book to find out more about himself and the people around him, rather than have them compel him to overt action. This is a good book if you like character development and intricate relationships, but bad if you want something happening on every page. The book is well written with clear and expressive language, but the psychological self-analysis might not appeal to everybody.

I personally enjoyed it as an extension of Fifth Business. Although I will be taking a break, the review of the final book, A World of Wonders, will be forthcoming in the future.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.

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