I’m not sure quite what to say about Bishop’s Road, except that I enjoyed it. It’s a good book, but an odd one. The novel is set in a boarding house in downtown St. John’s, and follows the interconnected lives of five eccentric women boarders over the course of a year or so. But that summary makes it sound like a straightforward, realistic novel of St. John’s life, and Bishop’s Road is more than that.
Once again, as with Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, I’m left struggling to find a way to describe this novel. It uses the trappings of realism to do things that belong in the realm of fantasy, so perhaps “magic realism” is the best label. The sense that this is not quite the world we know begins with small things that could almost be errors: hedgehogs in a St. John’s garden, a St. John’s in which Atlantic Place has been torn down and yet people still shop at Ayres (for those of you who don’t live in St. John’s, Atlantic Place is an ugly office/shopping building that’s unfortunately still standing, and Ayres is a department store that’s been closed for twenty years).
But it becomes clear that these are no accidental departures from verisimilitude: Safer is playing with her setting, creating a fairytale version of St. John’s, a not-quite-real place where amid vividly real details, impossible and magical things can happen. It took me awhile to suspend my disbelief and enter the world of this novel — things happen in improbably fairytale ways, with people making contact or losing contact far more easily than they would in real life, to suit the demands of the plot. To be fair, Safer clearly indicates the kind of world into which we are moving with an epigraph which appears, not inside the book, but on the back cover over Katherine Munro’s painting of a surreally beautiful fairytale St. John’s downtown scene. The quote is from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: “But remember…that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.”
What is most true in this fairytale is the heart of the city of St. John’s — for even though Bishop’s Road is a fictitious street, and this version of St. John’s has hedgehogs and no Atlantic Place (a fair trade-off, most of us would agree), this is the city I know and love. Particularly, Safer does a better job than any writer I’ve ever read of capturing the rhythm of the seasons in St. John’s, and the way the weather plays upon people’s emotions. Here’s an excerpt from her description of a February thaw:
“There is a day in February when the sun is warm and snow melts a little and you can open the windows and air the house as long as you remember to close them again when it gets dark. It is a reprieve for people in places like this. A short reminder that the season will not last forever. And in March when the rest of the country is shaking off the cold for good and you still can’t see over the snow banks to the sidewalk, you remember that day in February when you opened the windows and aired the house and you are strengthened for the duration.”
In the overcrowded world of up-and-coming Newfoundland authors, Safer hasn’t received as much recognition as she deserves for Bishop’s Road, but anyone who lives here should recognize that that paragraph alone is worth a literary prize.
But when I accepted that I was in a world where miracles, reincarnation, and magic can happen just off Water Street, I found myself enjoying the ride, and caring about the fate of the wonderfully eccentric characters with which Safer has peopled the house on Bishop’s Road.