On the road again - with mom

A new coming-of-age novel from Canada searches for motives in strange places

CHILDHOOD

By Andr Alexis

Henry Holt

261 pp., $23

Many first-time novelists write of the experiences of a young person growing up. The loss of innocence, the getting of wisdom, the pain of disillusion, the excitement of learning, the development of a sense of individual identity, all are inviting themes.

Canadian writer Andr Alexis' first novel, "Childhood," is one of the most engaging treatments of the subject that I've read in some time. Unusual but not straining for bizarre effects, sensitive but free from preciosity, this evocative, intriguing novel is narrated by a man setting down the somewhat strange story of his youth in order to share his past with the woman with whom he hopes to share a future.

Consigned by an erratic mother he scarcely remembers to the care of a cantankerous, but responsible grandmother, young Thomas Macmillan spends his early years in a small town in southern Ontario. His dark skin elicits some racist remarks, but on the whole, his childhood is pleasant and serene.

His grandmother, a retired schoolteacher with a passion for Charles Dickens and homemade dandelion wine, has almost nothing to tell him about his mother. Clearly, mother and daughter did not get on. But the woman next door, Lillian Schwartz, remembers his mother well. Thomas's idea of his mother is shaped by Lillian's fond reminiscences of her girlhood friend Katarina. But when Katarina suddenly shows up to claim her 10-year-old son in the wake of his grandmother's death, she is not what the boy expected.

Next thing he knows, Thomas, who is used to regular, nourishing meals, is on the road in a decrepit automobile with his attractive but inscrutable mother and her current male companion. The couple has run out of money and coaches the boy to steal food from stores.

A fortunate falling-out between the adults leaves Thomas and his mother continuing their journey on foot. Fortunate, because Katarina decides to repair to the welcoming home of the gentle, erudite, mildly eccentric Henry Wing, who, for reasons obscure to Thomas and the rest of us, seems to love Katarina unconditionally.

Henry Wing's Victorian home in Ottawa is crammed with books: everything from Spinoza to Sheherazade, medieval mysticism to "The Natural History of the Beetle." There is also a spotless laboratory, with wonderful vials, beakers, and alembics, where Henry, an amateur scientist, conducts his experiments.

Like Thomas's grandmother, Henry was born in Trinidad, and his housekeeper still makes the peppery dishes of his native land. Science and scholarship are Henry's avocations; he makes his living buying and selling stocks.

There is no doubt that Henry is unusual: "Why," wonders Tom, "would a 20th-century man, Trinidadian at that, choose to live in a Victorian setting, with a gentleman's lab, old-fashioned books, and courtly attitudes that would have marked him as 'stuffy' centuries ago?"

A much bigger mystery is the long-suffering, patient, generous quality of Henry's love for Tom's restless mother, who seems to prefer unreliable, loveless, lower-class men who treat her badly.

As an adult looking back on his childhood, Thomas can find no clear and simple explanations of why anyone - his mother, Henry, even his own younger self - felt or acted as they did. The meaning is elusive, and resides, if anywhere, in his act of recollection, of commemorating, cherishing, and pondering these people and events, and writing them down.

Alexis' graceful, quietly elegant prose style lends power and poignancy to Tom's story and his quest to understand the nature of love.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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