Davies - The Deptford Trilogy - discussion

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Davies - The Deptford Trilogy - discussion

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dec 3, 2012, 9:49 am

For discussion of Davies's Deptford Trilogy, consisting of:

Fifth Business (1970)
The Manticore (1972)
World of Wonders (1972)

dec 21, 2012, 9:09 am

I saw that Rebecca added her excellent reviews of The Salterton Trilogy and The Cornish Trilogy to their respective discussion pages, so I decided to add my review of The Deptford Trilogy:

Fifth Business

Fifth Business follows the life of Dunstan Ramsay from childhood in Deptford, Canada, through the Great War, and up till his old age as a professor at a Toronto university. Davies has created an interesting if not particularly likeable character in Ramsay, who will also play a role in the later books. The story begins with Ramsay’s retelling of a formative event in his childhood which involved his friend, Boy Staunton, and how it reverberated throughout their lives. Boy will play a central role in the rest of the trilogy; his death (not much of a spoiler: my edition reveals this on the back page) is the fulcrum on which it turns.

Ramsay himself is the ‘fifth business’ of the title: a character in a play who is not one of the main characters, but without whom the play could not function (Horatio in Hamlet springs to mind). Ramsay is side-lined throughout the novel, despite his interesting life and rare abilities: Boy keeps on taking centre-stage. To elaborate on Ramsay: he loses a leg in the War, and becomes a hagiographer (in the older, literal sense: he writes biographies of the saints). He also has an important relationship with another character that will later play an important role: Paul Dempster, whom Ramsay introduces to conjuring tricks and other magical paraphernalia.

The novel was quite satisfying as the first part of a trilogy: it introduced the characters, but also set the stage for the intrigue of the later novels. My only complaint would be the number of coincidental encounters in the book, which seemed much too good to be true.

The Manticore

This second novel in the trilogy is narrated by Boy Staunton’s son, David. After his father’s death, David, who has become a famous criminal lawyer in Canada, decides to go see an analyst in Switzerland because of his deteriorating mental health. He ends up with a female Jungian analyst, who uses different techniques, including regression and dream interpretation, to help him come to terms with his problems. These also serve as a useful device to tell David’s story.

David’s relation of events, although personal, helps to throw a light on the same events that Ramsay’s story covered, but giving different emphases. We find out more about the events surrounding Boy’s death, but David’s story is mostly concerned with his own recovery. It is only at the end, when he runs into Ramsay (again, a bit coincidentally) that the story starts to come full circle. Ramsay is now living in Switzerland with Paul Dempster, who has become the world-famous magician, Magnus Eisengrim. How Paul became Eisengrim is the focus of the next book, however.

I really enjoyed this book, which is very different from the first book. David’s psycho-analysis is fascinating, as is his story. I thought that the end came a bit suddenly, but perhaps that is fitting for a book dealing with sudden breakthroughs in one’s psyche. The ‘manticore’ of the title is David himself, who has dreams with definite mythological undertones. In fact, these mythological and religious undertones may be the most enjoyable part of Davies’s writing. He has a knack for making intelligent use of subtexts, and for making the reader feel intelligent as well. Very enjoyable!

World of Wonders

In this last part of the Deptford Trilogy, Davies has Paul Dempster, aka Magnus Eisengrim, relate the story of his life. He is busy filming the life of a famous 19th-century conjuror, and relates his own story to Ramsay and the film crew (well, the famous director and a few others). Dempster describes being abducted by the magician of a travelling sideshow (the World of Wonders of the title), and how he eventually gained his freedom and, later, fame.

Dempster’s life story is, in many senses, quite harrowing. For instance, Willard, the show magician, rapes him repeatedly. Davies does not pull punches in relating these disturbing aspects of his story, though he does not describe them in an egregious fashion. Ramsay is again the narrator, and he and the film crew have interesting conversations concerning the nature of evil, the Devil, and other pertinent topics. These conversations were quite an interesting way of conveying the story – reminiscent of older books, like Thomas Love Peacock’s “novels”, which I only know by reputation.

Davies brings the trilogy to a satisfying, if enigmatic close, without wrapping everything up like a neat present. There is a sinister undertone to some of the events of the novel – though, ironically, Boy Staunton’s death is actually one of the less-sinister parts of the book. Davies is obviously a very philosophical writer, yet he retains the necessary sleight of hand that a plot requires. “Sleight of hand” is quite an apt term, as the trilogy, concerned with magic throughout, is itself a wonderfully staged piece of entertainment. Despite being overly long for a straight read-through (which is what I did), the trilogy remains satisfying throughout, which is a rare distinction. Enjoyable, enchanting, enhancing.

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