A Whole Brass Band
Barbara Yitsch is a consultant at Duncan’s English Language Consulting
Ltd. in Edmonton.
Meet Jean Pritchard; her kids, Patsy, Mark, and Sally; her mother, Eve;
and a host of their West Coast relatives and friends. Jean wrestles life
to its knees, wringing blood and venom and candy floss from each day’s
unexpected turn of events. This is what I mean: Jean goes to work at a
Vancouver supermarket, and punk thieves rob her store. Jean comes home,
fights with her ex, Tommy, goes to bed, and punk vandals blow out her
front window. Meantime, daughter Sally sucks back Gravol and screams
obscenities at her teachers. Brother Mark plays in a rock band. Mother
Eve returns from lost horizons. Father Einarr dies.
Fleeing this scene (and not a minute too soon, gasps the breathless
reader), Jean moves her family up the coast to Saltery Bay. But things
only get worse for her up there. For the reader too. In Vancouver,
Jean’s personality has quirky dimensions. In Vancouver, Jean’s kids
have spunk. Up the Pacific Coast, however, Jean turns sappy—and kind
of irritating, actually—and the yarn goes soapy. Up the coast, the
teens start to practice a sitcom’s smarminess in their dealings with
the locals. Indeed, when a bully nearly punches Sally’s lights out,
the reader may be tempted to step in and shoo away her mother’s
But Anne Cameron’s writing has rhythm, and an earthy, ironic charm.
The setting, clearly Canadian, brings the West Coast to life. The plot,
though crazy, should work. Why doesn’t it?
Cameron writes a novel instead of that favorite Canadian genre the
short story. Fair enough. Still, she structures her novel through
episodes: the short-story impulse. Unfortunately, Cameron allows the
episodes to overwhelm the characters, and that, as Yul Brynner’s king
would say, is a puzzlement, because thin characters just don’t do
justice to the writing. However, in a world seen through the eyes of
Jean, A Whole Brass Band plays loud even where it plays off-key.