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Fiction General

The Question

by (author) Austin Clarke

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Feb 2004
General, Literary, Romance
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2004
    List Price

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By the Giller Prize-winning author of The Polished Hoe
A finalist for the Governor General’s Award

When a man and a woman meet on a summer day, they begin a conversation that will change both their lives. As their words weave a web of intimacy, the man finds himself drawn into recollections of his childhood on an island in the Caribbean, and to reflections on his life in Toronto. But who is she, this woman he meets at a party? What is behind her dark secrets? What can anyone know about another – really? As their relationship hurtles forward, he gradually finds himself part of a strange triangle of affections, until events escalate, leading to the novel’s dramatic final scenes. The Question is a brilliant, devastating foray into the mysterious and highly charged realm of relationships and colliding cultures.

About the author

Culminating with the international success of The Polished Hoe in 2002, Austin Clarke has published ten novels, six short story collections, and three memoirs in the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and Holland. Storm of Fortune, the second novel in his Toronto Trilogy about the lives of Barbadian immigrants, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 1973. The Origin of Waves won the Rogers Communications Writers’ Development Trust Prize for Fiction in 1997. In 1999, his ninth novel,The Question, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. In 2003 he had a private audience with Queen Elisabeth in honour of his Commonwealth Prize for his tenth novel, The Polished Hoe. In 1992 Austin Clarke was honored with a Toronto Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, and in 1997, Frontier College granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998 he was invested with the Order of Canada, and he has received four honorary doctorates. In 1999 he received the Martin Luther King Junior Award for Excellence in Writing.

Austin Clarke's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction

Excerpt: The Question (by (author) Austin Clarke)

She and I were sitting on the wooden deck. Thirteen other men and women were in the garden. We were at the house of the woman who had made the deck herself, she told me soon after I had sat down beside her. “Fuck-all job, don’t you feel?” she said to me, as if she wanted to put some distance between herself and the woman. I did not know the woman. “Isn’t it a shitty job?” She had this manner of raising her voice, as if asking a question, even though she was making a statement. Her statements were clear, and blunt, and filled with opinion, and spoken in an aristocratic voice, declarations of confidence.

She and I were the only ones sitting and talking, and behaving as if we had been friends before this afternoon, as if we were now seducing each other with the words passing between us, from one lip wet with the red wine, from her reddened lips to mine, back and forth, but more from her lips. And we knew it. We knew what we were doing.

A small dog was lying at our feet. It was hearing her words about the deck, and the words that sounded like jabs, like sparring, daring and venturing into a relationship – words passing between us. The dog raised his ears once or twice, and then he ignored the two of us. He then looked as if he was sleeping; and then he looked as if he was dead. Or almost dead. I do not like this dog: I did not grow up liking dogs.

But she and I were not, in spite of the words flying between us, building a relationship with those words. Neither the words that were spoken, nor the acknowledgement of those words, had any real meaning. At least to me. It was just talk. It was summer. Strawberries were in glass bowls of sour cream, sliced watermelons like clotted wedges of blood, with small round black bones in them, were in platters with ice on them, and champagne was in the hands of most of the other guests standing on the lawn, amongst the beds of red and pink impatiens. It was summer. And frivolous. And we had time. Although this summer, like all summers, is short. But we had time.

It was as if we were moving over a vast interminable body of water that was blue, with white clouds low over the water, and were taking our time to travel and saunter in our conversation, and make our words have the life of the waves in the tropical water, never-ending in this journey that was meant to be long and logged with pleasure and with curiosity.

“Do you know, I don’t know five of the people here,” she said, and then behaved as if she hadn’t spoken.

But I could feel that even though it was a journey of imagination and not of acquaintance, of getting to know her, and her getting to know me, making up a bed to lie in, it was not going to be all fun and gaiety, placid water and peace. Perhaps it was even one of those journeys with no destination. The words that passed between us, cut off from the rest of the party, in our secret journey were themselves longer, deliberately longer than the words spoken by the other guests who were now standing in knots on the grass which seemed wet, as if they were standing in dew. Some of them seemed as if they were getting ready to leave. But it was only their nervousness and their discomfiture, as if they too did not know any of the other guests. Without uttering a word, she and I knew it would be good if they were to disappear and leave us alone on the deck.

The two of us were going to remain on the wooden deck, with our conversation, with the uneven slabs of cedar, with the heads of nails jutting from the floorboards biting into our thin summer shoes; one woman passed us from the kitchen with a pile of white plates with blue rims, and shrieked, and stopped to look at the sole of her right foot, and saw the spot of blood. She said, “What could this be?” and looked at us; and that seemed to convince us that we were going to sit together on this same dangerous deck, and would see the end of the warm night through the journey of our words. We would be happy, in spite of the lingering dog which has just risen as if from the dead, and has run his tongue over my ankles, and then jumped into my lap. I try to ignore it. This dog cannot think in my terms, may not even be able to think, has no mind like mine. But something about his behaviour tells me that he has a mind of his own. A mind conditioned by the way its owner behaves with it. Who is its owner? Perhaps it is a trained mind, in a trained dog.

This woman I am sitting beside has reddish hair, and when she lifts her glass, I can see thin hairs under her arms, like thin lines drawn without precision; and her lips are full and the smear of lipstick makes them seem wet and red to suit the colour of the wine she is drinking. I can see her legs, for she crosses her legs each time she makes a point, each time she ends her statements with the raising of her voice. If we should stand up, she would reach to my neck. She could be five-foot-eight. Her skin is darkened with the sun of summer in a backyard much like this one, on a chair of unpainted wood and blue canvas, like those that the English sit in in parks. But it is her breasts, and their shape, and their size, which I am always coming back to, as I try to admire them, focus on them, without being caught, and then have to blush about doing this, as if it is wrong, incorrect to fall in love with a woman’s breasts before I know something about her mind.

Editorial Reviews

“A seductively intriguing psychological novel about male-female relationships.… Treats the sense, the intuition and the intellect.”
Hamilton Spectator
“Haunting and provocative.…Clarke strips back the day-to-day quality of ordinary marriage, and reveals the clumsy iridescence of raw human want.”
Globe and Mail

“Austin Clarke is a man who understands the power of language: the force of a few words that can make or break an argument: words that traverse the shaky narrative terrain between truth and lies.”
Ottawa Citizen
“A gem.… The Question is mesmerizing in the best sense; it is poignant, and at times wonderfully funny.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“There is a rare kind of psychological novel that focuses tightly on the relationship between two or three characters.…The most successful of these, such as Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, are notable for their intensity and their uncanny ability to capture the essence of a time and place.… [The Question] belongs perfectly in this company.… Clarke’s language is unstintingly sensual, the unveiling wandering voice of a poet lost in the body of a judge.”
Globe and Mail

“Austin Clarke’s The Question is a powerful portrait of a complex and enigmatic character caught up in the politics of race, dislocation and gender. His mastery of dialogue and dialect and his humorous insights into the vicissitudes of human experience make this novel unforgettable.”
–Jury citation, Governor General’s Award

“[Clarke is] a consummate storyteller…”
Quill & Quire
“While many first- and second-generation immigrant writers lucidly describe the alienation and confusion of cultural dislocation, few also tell poignant stories about human relationships that, without the force of their multicultural themes, would stand on their own literary merits.The Question does. It leaves the reader with unforgettable images of urban alienation and failed romance.… A moving read.…”
National Post
“This novel is very rich and will enrich those who choose to read it. The Question challenges us to think about personal, familial and national identity; cross-cultural relationships; immigration and citizenship; Canadian culture. About creating family and culture where we live, integrating what we bring with us into the place where we land. About making ourselves at home.”
January Magazine
“What Clarke achieves in The Question is something akin to Ford Maddox Ford’s brilliant characterization of the unreliable narrator in The Good Soldier.”
Vancouver Sun

Other titles by Austin Clarke