Place and Belonging: André Alexis's Pastoral, by Pamela Davison
27 June 2014

Author André Alexis

“He assumed that the ‘country’ was simpler than the city, that rural routes were, metaphorically speaking, straighter than metropolitan ones. It followed, in his mind, that the people of Barrow would be more straightforward than those who lived in and around the Byward Market. That this was not true he learned almost at once.” (Pastoral).

Coming out of a crisis of faith, Pastor Christopher Pennant is a man of God in need of spiritual renewal, and small town Barrow, Ontario, seems to offer all the pastoral attractions necessary to a cleric seeking the naturally divine: enchanting landscapes, homemade macaroni pies, and normal parishes. Yet the “quintessential Southern Ontario town” does not consist only of churchyards framed in maple trees and grazing sheep. There are pricey artisanal bakeries and eccentric stained glass saints; there is a housekeeper Pennant inherits without wanting to hire; there are unexplainable natural phenomena that could be tricks or miracles; and there is a love triangle which is not about sex, as love-torn Robbie insists to both his fiancée Liz and his mistress Jane. Instead of finding God, Pennant finds complications in love and faith. When the whole town becomes embroiled in a Job-like wager between Liz and Jane, it is clear the women are playing for stakes much higher than a country wedding. Can Pennant return from the cusp of doubt, or will his pastoral fantasy end in disillusion?

Award-winning Canadian author Andre Alexis’s third novel is more complicated than its simple title suggests. More than a portrait of clichéd “Canadiana” or romanticized rural living, Alexis presents small towns and agricultural landscapes rife with unsentimental contradictions. Barrow may be a town embedded in nature, but it is also a town founded by an oil baron. Likewise, the hospitality of Barrow doesn’t merely revolve around the exchange of macaroni pies; the drunken summer partying on the town’s annual Barrow Day is as much a part of the social fabric as baking and churchgoing. As imagined by Alexis, the novel reveals many different lifestyles coexisting and clashing in one place. Redneck backwater or pre-modern sanctuary, how Barrow appears will depend on who you ask, and it is this diversity of viewpoints and rich characterization that make Pastoral an affectionate and at times comedic read. The novel features a believable cast of characters with interesting inner lives to snare readers, though the external action of the plot can at times feel slow. More importantly, Pastoral’s fundamental aim is not merely the realistic depiction of a small town but also the search for place and belonging. It is this, more than the setting of the novel, which makes Pastoral accessible . The novel is a readable exploration of themes central to Alexis’s earlier novels, such as love, twenty-first century spirituality, and Canadian identity, and marks the development of an important Canadian writer.    

© 2014, Pamela Davison

[Photo: Linda Leith]

Pamela Davison is an undergraduate student at Concordia University, pursuing a double major in English and Political Science. She was born on the Prairie and has travelled widely across Canada, but feels most at home in Montreal. Her love of books and writing was deeply ingrained by her mother (a journalist) who wouldn't let her daughter watch PG 13 movies but let her read anything she wanted.

More Articles