Russell Smith’s highly praised new novel features some typically caustic satire, alongside a deep and melancholy awareness of the force of desire in our lives. The combination of wit and perception in Muriella Pent — and its brilliant dialogue, beautiful descriptive prose, assured handling of racial politics, and exact observation of modern types — underlines Russell Smith’s claim to be one of Canada’s subtlest, sharpest writers.
The book begins with a poem by Marcus Royston (from his "Island Eclogues") and a fundraising message from Muriella Pent; then, in the first scene, still before chapter one, these two very different writers have a revealing post-coital conversation. The combination of texts and action, the pointed and moving dialogue, and the ineradicable presence of sex tell us a lot about how Muriella Pent will go on: it’s precise and original even before really beginning.
In the first two chapters the principal characters are introduced more fully. Marcus Royston, a successful poet twenty years ago, is now jaded, boozy, and slightly seedy, and finding himself increasingly superannuated on the Caribbean island of St. Andrew’s. Muriella Pent, in the Arts and Crafts oasis of Stilwoode Park in Toronto, is widowed, free, sometimes unhappy, and perhaps a little uncontrolled. Phone conversations introduce us to her younger friend Julia Sternberg and to Brian Sillwell, a student who volunteers alongside Muriella on the very PC City Arts Board Action Council (Literature Committee).
At this committee’s invitation, with a little quiet help from Canada’s ministry of External Affairs, Marcus comes to Toronto on a literary residency, to live in a basement apartment in Muriella’s large house. From his arrival he is a disruptive presence: he instantly flirts with his hostess (and most everyone else), drinks too much, and is constitutionally unable to use the buzzword-heavy language of victimhood, appropriation, and community spoken in the Toronto arts world. As he tells the shocked literature committee, alternative journalists, a meeting of librarians and Muriella’s genteel book club alike: identity politics isn’t everything, art isn’t activism, and a novel shouldn’t be read to uncover the author’s social "message."
"It is not about providing positive influence, or solving the problems of poverty. It’s about the things, all dark things that…" He drained his cup. "All the dark things that motivate us." He stared straight in the eyes of the beautiful young girl and said, "Sex. It’s about sex. Largely. And corruption and decadence. And all the terrible, terrible things we think."
Muriella, Brian, and Julia — that "beautiful young girl" — are unsettled, and inspired.
Perhaps the disastrous and chaotic party held in his honour at Muriella’s house best illustrates the disruptive effect Marcus has on the lives around him, when the explosive power of desire crosses boundaries of age, gender and race. But Marcus is not simply a maverick: he is honest, pained, doubly in exile from a home he is ambivalent about, in sight of old age, and genuinely moved by his connection to Muriella and Julia.
The novel’s collage of diary entries, e-mails, letters and newspaper articles gives us unusual insight into the characters’ needs and weaknesses as they are profoundly affected by crashing into each other. With Marcus and Muriella’s involvement, Brian and Julia develop from wary adolescents into people capable of meaningful action; it is Muriella herself, however, who seems to change the most.
But Muriella Pent works on a wider canvas; for all its psychological acuity it is profoundly, perhaps even primarily, a novel of place. Toronto is a vivid presence, from the roti shops on St. Clair West to historic sites like Fort York, from its earnest, grasping artists to the cosseted, pseudonymous enclave of Stilwoode Park.
As satire and social observation, as an exploration of what art should be and do, as a study of sex as a prime mover in the messy triumphs of our lives, Muriella Pent is unmatched.
About the Author
Russell Smith was born in South Africa and raised in Halifax, the son of a university professor and a teacher. He began his career as a writer in Toronto after studying at universities in France and Canada.
His first novel, How Insensitive, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Governor General's Award, the Trillium Award, and the Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award, and became a bestseller in Canada. He is also the author of the novel Noise, the award winning story collection Young Men, and an illustrated adult fable, The Princess and the Whiskheads.
A popular and controversial weekly columnist with The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith’s articles on a variety of subjects have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Details, Travel and Leisure, Toronto Life, EnRoute, Toro and elsewhere. He is currently working on Russell Smith's Style, a sociological guide to men's clothing, to be published by McClelland and Stewart in the fall of 2005.
Russell Smith lives in Toronto.
“Smith writes some of the most luminous prose in Canadian fiction. . . . He mines and refines the best of what has come before on the way to making it his own. Also, Smith is entirely credible when writing female characters. . . . One catches quiet echoes of Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
“[Marcus] Royston is one of the most convincing characters I’ve come across in Canadian fiction. . . . Interspersed with the biting wit is an almost elegiac quality to the writing.”
—The Globe and Mail
“This is a valuable addition to the Canadian canon, rivaling the early work of another skilled satirist of the urbane and urban, Mordecai Richler.”
“The best Canadian novel published in 2004 was Muriella Pent…. Russell Smith is one of the best stylists of my generation. His prose is exact, surprising, and written by a man with a fine ear.”
—Andre Alexis, author of Childhood, in The Globe and Mail
“The heart of the novel beats in time with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller and all the writers before and after them who, when you sweat their books down to the essentials, say simply that sex is an artery of life. Muriella Pent plays out on a bigger canvas than Smith has worked on before. It's the work of a good novelist who wants to be a better novelist. And has become one. There's a gifted and sensually alert writer at the wheel here.”
“Deserves to stand as one of the strongest Canadian novels of the year”
“Irresistibly poignant…. Readers looking to spice up their book club will have plenty to talk about with Russell Smith’s latest, Muriella Pent. "
“Read any page of Muriella Pent at random and it will become immediately obvious that you’re in the presence of a talented writer. . . . The really exciting aspect of Muriella Pent is the masterful way Smith presents his two central characters.”
—The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)
“We need writers like Smith to remind us of the grim truth of this strange country…. It’s a funny, poignant, ambitious, and highly entertaining book and the boldest work yet in Smith’s bleak oeuvre.”
—Books in Canada
“[Russell Smith is] something of a literary heir to Margaret Atwood”
—The Toronto Star
“A novel of manners about ambitious young downtowners of an artistic bent, Muriella Pent is adroit and amusing. And in its depiction of one exceptional character, Caribbean poet Marcus Royston, it is very good indeed.”