Review: The Canterbury Trail, by Angie Abdou

>>Published: March 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2011

At the mountain’s summit, the sun lit up the billowing cornices, turning them into glazed icing atop a giant cake, making them seem a photographer’s dream rather than a backcountry enthusiast’s nightmare. Even she, who knew better, felt drawn to the gravity-defying pile of snow. She understood Sancho’s urge to run out on the lip of white fluff, suspended on nothing but snow and air, miles above the earth. Out there, she’d be an angel, part of the miracle and closer to the divine.

***

Loosely inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Angie Abdou’s second novel is a difficult moose to wrestle to the ground. This is due less to the quality of writing and more to do with the characters and the book’s structure.

Right away it’s clear that Abdou’s writing has matured dramatically in a very short amount of time, and her sense of voice is the beneficiary. While her previous book, The Bone Cage, was well written, it was also a very straightforward, two-protagonist story. The Canterbury Trail, on the other hand, is far more complex. Abdou juggles fourteen characters and four dogs—so many disparate personalities crammed into such a short novel that it warrants a dramatis personae at the book’s introduction. With a challenging and diverse cast to manage, it would be easy for character personalities to bleed together, but Abdou writes each with a clear sense of who they are and what each pilgrim brings to the table.

That being said, the size of the cast is also the book’s greatest liability. With so much carefully crafted diversity divided across several characters, the frequent shifts in perspective were jarring; the personalities were difficult to crack, to understand, as the opportunities to slip beneath their surface sheen were limited by the segmented structure of the narrative. As a result, the events of the finale left me feeling rather neutral—inspired by the haunting descriptions of mother nature’s wrath, but less than sympathetic to its lasting effect on the pilgrims’ lives. Perhaps it is this and the difficulty I had finding any sort of identification with the characters that caused much of the book’s humour to fall short.

I am not a swimmer or a wrestler—I’ve never competed in any formal sporting events—yet I was able to find my footing with The Bone Cage through the main characters’ drive, their passion to succeed at all costs. That element was very easy to relate to, and it is this aspect, the ability to relate to any of the characters, that I feel has held me back from embracing The Canterbury Trail. The skill on display is admirable, and Abdou has exhibited tremendous growth as a writer with her second novel, but the characters left me in the cold, freezing my toes in the snow and waiting for an entrance into their world.

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