Grant Buday’s new novel is an eccentric coming-of-age story that captures the late-Victorian fascination with ancient Egypt, auras, and the afterlife.
Smart, stubborn, and forthright Pearl Greyland-Smith is nine years old when we first meet her, in 1882. She lives with her widowed mother, Florence, in Victoria’s James Bay neighbourhood. Pearl’s father was a Hussar who died in Afghanistan, or that’s what Florence has always told Pearl. But when an Irish woman named Cassidy arrives at their door and addresses Florence as Sinead, Pearl begins to realize she may not know very much about her origins at all.
An avid reader with a rich inner life, as Pearl grows up she nonetheless confronts the scarcity of choices available to women. Yet while lacking in certain amenities, Pearl and Florence’s days are anything but dull, populated by characters easily at home in a Dickens novel: the earnest and enigmatic amateur scientist Charles Gloster, their bawdy, theosophist housemaid Carpy, inspector Osmo Beattie, and imperialist newspaper columnist Harry Hearne. Then a fateful encounter at a solstice fête throws Pearl’s whole future into question.
This delightful coming-of-age story, imbued with the Victorian fascination for auras and the afterlife, will appeal to readers of Patrick DeWitt and Eleanor Catton. Once again Grant Buday has turned distant West Coast history upside down and created a vivid world intimately relevant to us today.
About the author
Grant Buday is the author of four novels: Rootbound, White Lung (Anvil Press), Under Glass, The Venetian, and A Sack of Teeth. White Lung was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize, as was his last collection of stories, Monday Night Man (Anvil Press). The Green Gold Rush, a screenplay based on the marijuana industry in BC, was a co-winner of the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters spring 1998 screenplay development workshop.
Excerpt: In the Belly of the Sphinx: A Novel (by (author) Grant Buday)
Chapter Two: 1885
Florence and Pearl lived in a middling neighbourhood of small but well-maintained houses. None had indoor toilets, but most had lush vegetable gardens full of potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots and onions—but no garlic—and flowerbeds featuring daffodils, daisies, crocuses, and roses. Sea Street sloped gently away from Beacon Hill and was paved in blocks of garry oak set in beds of sand. It was lively with the clamour of children and dogs and the occasional pop from across the lane where Mr. Livingstone’s ale bottles were wont to explode. There were also the Stricklands. Mr. S was an Actuarial Engineer who in his spare time was attempting to manufacture a line of chewing gum. “The challenge,” he explained to Florence across the laurel hedge, “is whether to design a treat you swallowed or one you expectorated.” On the other side were the Sneads, glass blowers with a shop on Burns Lane and an ancient dog called Medusa. Grandfather Snead had a white eye from having been splashed with hot glass. His eyeball looked like the wart on Desmond Terence Padraich Orlovski-with-an-i’s right foot. Desmond had become Pearl’s friend. In fact, it turned out that he was more than a mere friend. Pearl, newly turned twelve years old, announced to her mother that she was getting married.
“And who is this young swain who has so won your heart?” enquired Florence.
“His name,” said Pearl with great pride, “is Desmond Terence Padraich Orlovski-with-an-i.”
“An impressive title indeed.”
“His mother is an Irish queen and his father a Polish prince.”
“Is that so.”
“And do you plan on living in a very big house?”
“Oh mother, who can say, for Padraich has warts on his foot.”
“That must be painful indeed.”
“It is, but he can jump very high.”
“He must have strong legs.”
“And he has a big muscle here.” Pearl flexed her bicep.
“Does he live nearby? I do not recognize the name.”
“His mother sells frogs in the market.”
“Is that why he has warts and jumps?”
“Oh mother, really, that is absurd.” But secretly Pearl wondered.
“A queen who sells frogs,” said Florence with admiration.
“It is like something from a fairy tale,” agreed Pearl.
“It is. And where is the father, this Prince Orlovski?” She resisted speculating that he was off fighting a dragon.
“I believe he is passed.”
“Desmond must be sad.”
“He does not talk about it.”
Florence nodded as if to say that this was only proper.
Desmond was two years older than Pearl, and while not possessed of a gleaming intellect, he was considerate and he picked salmonberries and bear berries and huckleberries that he presented to Pearl in a cone cleverly fashioned from a menu card he’d pinched from The Tipperary Tea Room to which he’d been delivering coal. It was while delivering coal to the Greyland-Smith’s house that he first beheld Pearl.
“I’ll not always deliver coal,” he said, frowning into the brilliance of his future and picking salmonberry seeds from his teeth with a stalk of field grass.
“Someday you will own more coal mines than Mr. Dunsmuir,” said Pearl proudly. She had not told him the distinguished lineage she had invented for him for the benefit of her mother.
Owning coal mines had not occurred to Desmond, who had been thinking more along the lines of saving his money and buying Ronald Bench’s old bow saw, which was rusty and dull but with a bit of work could be renewed, and with it he would go out on his own to cut cordwood. “It’s cleaner,” he explained. “You don’t get the soot. There’s pitch,” he admitted, “but it smells fresh.”
Before bringing Desmond home to meet her mother, Pearl confided to her that Desmond’s royal lineage was secret and must not be discussed. Florence assured her that she understood and made a zipping-the-lips gesture. She did not know what she’d expected but was concerned to discover that young Desmond had hairs on his upper lip and smelled of soot and brine, needed a good scrub and a haircut as well as a decent set of clothes. They had roast pork and apple sauce which Desmond ate with gusto then, as eager and ingenuous as a young dog, licked his plate clean then smiled and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Florence was grateful that Desmond had driven the business of the memorial plaque from Pearl’s mind but decided that it was now time for a diversion from Desmond; she resolved to enroll Pearl in an academy. But which one? The best were expensive. Most of the local children, if they went to school at all, attended Bigg’s Road Technical College where they learned the fundamentals of reading and writing and loyalty to Empire. Envisioning something more elevated, Florence wrote letters to various institutions enquiring about curriculum and tuition, and that autumn Pearl started at Lady Tweedsmuir Academy and found that she no longer had time for Desmond Terence Padraich Orlovski-with-an-i. To Florence’s great relief, Pearl was so captivated by her new life and friends that she neither missed nor mourned Desmond. He, however, missed and mourned Pearl, and took to standing in the roses that grew outside her bedroom window.
“Oh, Desmond, I shall always cherish what once we had,” cried Pearl. And then she lowered the window and pulled her curtains shut.
“Mother,” she said over her eggs the next morning, “I have broken Desmond’s heart.”
Florence regarded her daughter. “In the fullness of time he will survive.”
Carpy poured the Darjeeling, the milk wagon clopped passed out front, and one of Mr. Livingstone’s ale bottles exploded out back.
“Will you ever remarry?” Pearl suddenly asked.
To Florence’s indignation the question was directed not at her but Carpy.
“I just might. Who can say? I’m not past it yet. Not quite.”
“Just how old are you, Carpy?”
Pearl tried imagining such a fantastic age. What glories she would have known when she herself was thirty-seven, what heights she would have achieved and galas she would grace. Poor Carpy. Not only was she an over-the-hill Irish drudge but deluded to boot.
Florence thought: Carpy remarry but not her? Was she so plain, so ugly, so undesirable? She was twenty-eight years old.
Pearl asked Carpy if she had any particular gentleman in mind, imagining she had set her sights on some butler or drayman.
“Maybe I have and maybe I don’t.”
“You are prying,” Florence cautioned.
“I thirst for knowledge,” stated Pearl.
At school she was proving an eager student and the first three years sped past. Thanks to her mother’s tutoring, Pearl was well ahead in literature, French, and geography. Now her world expanded in other ways. She came home with tales of Miranda Robinson’s epic rudeness to Meara the school cook, mimicked Glynda Bell’s Scotch accent, spoke of Jo-Ellen Belvedere’s insistence on singing instead of speaking, said that Clarice Lawrence had been born in Darjeeling, and described Moira York’s left hand, which looked like a right foot. And then there was Beryl Morley who could recite her family lineage to Queen Anne and beyond. Her schoolmates were the offspring of aldermen, barristers, officers, and the elite of the Royal Engineering Corps. There was even one of James Douglas’ granddaughters’ cousins, who was masterful with the yo-yo.
Every evening Carpy bleached and mended Pearl’s school dress, brushed her black skirt, cleaned her shoes, and rinsed her grey stockings for it was imperative that she be impeccable. The school dress code allowed a narrow range of personal expression. No rings, earrings, brooches, bracelets, or cosmetics; hair bunned, lips and cheeks free of rouge. Her mother helped with her assignments.
“We are studying current events,” explained Pearl, as if such wonders were beyond the ken of her doddering old Mama. Unfolding the Colonist on the table, she found Harry Hearne’s latest column and read it aloud.
London has now had five bombings and the year is not over. In each case it is the Fenians. Count them: Gower Street Station, the House of Commons, Westminster Hall, the Tower of London, and Harrow Road.
Far be it from me to wish any man ill, but there be those amongst us whose absence would only improve the state of the world. I speak not only of murderers and grave robbers and highway men, of thugs, louts, and lay-abouts, but of men who foment revolution. Charles Stewart Parnell is such a man. He is called the Uncrowned King of Ireland. He is rallying point and firebrand, arch deceiver and master agitator, manipulating and misguiding the gullible and ignorant. A malignant man and no mistake. And now in the hung parliament at Westminster he holds the decisive vote in the balance of power between Mr. Gladstone’s Liberals and Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives.
And yet even if Mr. Parnell were put back in Kilmainham Gaol, where he so surely belongs, it would not address the root of the problem. For he is but the topmost fruit of a tainted tree. Even now the next Parnell waits on a lower branch, raw and green. The only way to save the tree is to lop the offending limb and graft on healthier stock. Permitting Ireland to return to its native savagery, to run amok, wild and uncultivated, would be a foolish neglect of no benefit to Great Britain or the Irish themselves.
Now of all times a United Empire is paramount. A forest stands strong whereas lone trees are prey to the wind. Dear Reader, make no mistake that the winds of ill are blowing.
“Miranda Robinson says that Mr. Parnell is very handsome,” said Pearl.
Florence agreed but thought it best to say nothing.
“What do they want, these bombers?”
Her mother cleared her throat. “An independent Ireland.”
“Is England not good enough for them?”
“I suspect it is rather more than that.”
“Miranda Robinson says the Irish are irredeemably RC and that the Queen should set the dogs on them.”
“It seems that your friend Miranda Robinson has many opinions.”
Pearl smoothed the paper and went on to a report on the progress of the Louis Riel trial. It seemed that Ontario wanted him hung and Quebec wanted him pardoned while Sir John A. MacDonald was waffling. She then moved on to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which was nearing completion, then to a British victory over Boer forces in Bechuanaland. The story that moved her, however, the story that captured her heart, was of the train wreck in Ontario that killed PT Barnum’s famed elephant Jumbo and broke Tom Thumb’s leg.
“Is that ironic?” she asked. “Miss Granger said we must know the varieties of irony.”
“I think not,” said Florence, “though certainly it is odd. Perhaps it’s an example of the comic grotesque, though it is not quite tragic, for neither Dumbo nor Tom Thumb are heroes in the Classical sense. Still, without doubt it is sad.”
Pearl stared at her mother, not sure whether to be irritated or impressed. “What school did you attend, mother?”
“I am an autodidact.”
“I am largely self-taught. Many women are. Now, do read on.”
Pearl cleared her throat in a way that she thought was significant and proceeded to read an update on the dancer Penny O’Dell and her roller-skating Gibraltar ape, Ulysses. Miss O’Dell and Ulysses had performed all up and down the coast. In April, she had announced her engagement to Michael Coughlin who had been in prison in Chicago for political activities. Only weeks later Miss O’Dell was found in an arbutus tree, strangled. The tree stood in the yard of the cottage she rented right there in Victoria, only a few streets in fact from the Greyland-Smiths. Inspector Osmo Beattie had investigated. The case seemed straightforward. Coughlin was not only a felon but a bit of a lad who’d been engaged twice before. Inspector Beattie conducted interrogations and was not, however, convinced of Coughlin’s guilt. The man had an airtight alibi, and besides, where was the motive? Yes, Penny O’Dell was famous, but she was also a spendthrift who had no property and lived from performance to performance. Beyond her wardrobe, ape, six cats, and two blind Irish wolfhounds she had nothing. Furthermore, she and Coughlin were by all accounts in love and shared a joy in dancing. They danced the tango in the ballroom of the Empress of Hong Kong in Victoria Harbour the day before she was found dead in the arbutus tree. She was a tiny woman, ninety pounds, still, it would take a man of Herculean strength to perform such a feat whereas Coughlin was a mere ten stone. No, it was not Coughlin but the ape, concluded Inspector Beattie. The beast had been discovered in Penny’s closet wearing one of her frocks, a white wig, and with red lipstick smeared all over its face. Examination of the beast’s paws matched the bruising on the victim’s throat.
“It was jealousy,” said Beattie, “a crime of passion. Before Coughlin appeared on the scene Ulysses had shared Penny’s room, they’d gone to restaurants together, and on Sunday rides in her carriage. Suddenly it found itself shut out.” He went on to explain that instead of murdering Coughlin, the interloper, it took its broken-hearted vengeance upon Penny, the betrayer. And yet how to punish an ape? There was precedent in France and Germany for executing hogs that had eaten children, therefore Ulysses was sentenced to hang, but before sentence was carried out, he expired of grief in his cage.
“It would appear that the inspector enjoys a deep insight into the simian brain,” said Florence.
“Perhaps that is why he is an inspector,” said Pearl.
“He’s a fine figure of a man,” put in Carpy, entering with the tea tray.
Pearl and Florence regarded her, wondering if it was Inspector Osmo Beattie upon whom she had set her sights.
“You have seen him then?” asked Florence with studied indifference.
“Everyone’s seen him. A highly respected man. Dutiful.”
“And are you very close friends?” asked Florence.
“We’re not friends at all. I keep me distance from plods.”
“How sad Ulysses must have been,” said Pearl.” Alone and heartbroken.” She also wondered whether Ulysses and Penny O’Dell had been intimate. The dark notion was inspired by the illustrated copy of The Metamorphoses of Ovid on their bookshelf in which all manner of unnatural encounter was followed by strange transformations, from women becoming trees to gods becoming swans.