Canarino by Katherine Bucknell

I am extremely grateful to my friend and colleague Lauren, who had the wisdom to send me a copy of Canarino by Katherine Bucknell along with the book I originally asked her for. That this fine novel hasn’t been published in the US is a mystery to me. Bucknell writes like a master fencer, tapping your chest  with her foil before you even see her move. The novel is a cool study of the failing marriage of David Judd, a wealthy investment banker living in London, and Elizabeth, his uber-bitch of a wife. Bitch isn’t even the correct term, because a bitch implies feeling hot emotions, and she doesn’t seem to have any of those. Most of her energy seems thrown into feelings of disdain, even towards her own two ornamental children, Gordon and Hope. Elizabeth is pale, blonde, and frozen, and speaks so softly that you can’t hear the dislike she doesn’t even take the effort to mask.

At a restaurant, she orders just a little piece of fish. “She said it in a soft, uncomplaining tone which seemed intended to carry the additional message, Don’t go to any trouble over me. I can make do with whatever nobody else wants.” But of course, fish isn’t on the menu, the waiter has to make two trips to the kitchen to find out what kind of plain white fish they even had that wasn’t already coated with breadcrumbs or flour. When the fish arrives, Elizabeth makes David send it back to remove the potatoes that accompanied the fish. “‘They’re swimming in butter’, she confided to him, as if he too would feel affronted. ‘I just want some plain boiled ones.’” She is to be revered and worshipped, something that David seems no longer capable of doing.

When she discovers his affair with a colleague, David placates her by agreeing to all of her demands. Retire and move back to the United States, she demands. There is much more to the plot and I’ll just say that David finds himself monstrously outmaneuvered toward the end. With a plot that moves brilliantly back and forth through time, what makes this novel sparkle is Bucknell’s examination of the characters. A review I read of Canarino called it Bucknell’s writing ‘forensic,’ which is entirely accurate as you sometimes feel like a medical examiner looking at the bodies, finding tiny bits of evidence as to why they died.

That Bucknell’s debut hasn’t made it over here is tragic. She’s gone on to write several other novels that I hope to read soon. The US is missing out on some extreme talent.

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