Book Review: Fifth Business

My father recommended Robertson Davies’ fourth novel, Fifth Business, to me more than two years ago, and exacted terrible oaths from me that I would return the books when I was done with them. I am heartily glad I did not simply return them unread, and I am kicking myself that I did not read this book earlier. I may have to buy him another copy of his own. This may have just become my favorite novel ever, after just one reading. It needs another perusal— not right away, but once the terrible, joyous thrill of having read a book that set my mind and heart afire in this way has cooled. I cannot help but feel it will burn again.

Part of my pleasure lay in the great uncertainty I felt at knowing what genre of novel I was reading. Carl Hiaassen writes about real estate, corruption and environment in Florida. You know that; that’s why you pick up one of his books. Dick Francis novels have horses on the cover, which provides a helpful clue; so do the drops of blood. This had a snow-covered village landscape, which was not promising. Plus, the author was Canadian. It could have been literally about anything.

And yet. And yet. One of the British hostages in Beirut during the days of the Reagan administration reported that he told his captors that he was bored and wanted to read, and would they bring him a book. They brought him a bunch of books, mostly trash, and he had to pick out one published by Penguin Books, and show it to his suspicious and militant guards. “You see this penguin?” he said. “Bring me books with this picture on it. Please.”

Robertson Davies’s book has a penguin on it. I should not have been surprised.

The book opens with the narrator’s writing to the headmaster of a school. I am familiar with this particular modality of writing, having done so much of it myself. However, I am certainly not in the habit of addressing my boss in such luridly disrespectful tones. How much more deliciously exciting to discover that the main character, the narrator, is not a punk student determined to prove how all the adults around him are phonies, but a retired teacher of more than forty years’ experience, the last few under this same head of school!

Recalling the events of the last seventy years, the teacher draws the head’s attention to a recent article in the alumni magazine announcing our narrator’s retirement. He is furious at how little he has been understood, how little his colleagues and students have grasped his essential place in history — not simply as an educator of boys who grow into important men, nor as an occasional scribbler of the role of myth in history, but as a genuine historical force, one who helped raise up mighty men and brought them low.

From here, the novel proceeds with spare but lucid epistolary prose — Dunstable Ramsay, our teacher, explains how he has moved and shook the world in spare detail, only explaining the necessary information, imparting the vital conversations, with specific detail of who has done what. By turns, Dunstable veers from the mythically holy library of his hometown, where he initiates a boy into the secrets of magic, to the glittering circle of a great man ensorcelled by a dangerously confused prince, to the killing fields of Flanders in World War I. The Great Mother appears to him, first as a .. a.. but to say it would spoil it… but … and then … and finally as a… but to say too much is to tread on the feet of the next reader. My mind kept asking, is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? Is it simply a pretentious novel? Is it a thriller? What is this thing I am reading? Autobiography? Memoir? I kept reading.

I have read a lot of books. Usually the last twenty pages or so of the average sci-fi or fantasy novel is a wrap-up, or a terrible cliff-hanger. Until the last five pages of the book I had no idea what was happening, even though I understood everything that had happened. I was a historian in possession of facts and dates, but no comprehension of how they fit together. Things that had bothered me in the first pages became suddenly clear and lucid as glass — nay, as diamond — and glittering truths burned at my fingerprints as I held the book. How could I have been so blind? Why did these chance comments seem so offhand before, and now burn brightly in my memory? How was I so deceived as to the nature of things?

I dare say I wasn’t a good teacher today. I was simply enthralled that I had been so duped, so utterly and charmingly bamboozled by a man who could teach Obi-Wan, Mentor and Merlin a lesson or two and that a teacher — a man acknowledged by all to be at the point farthest from the bright center of the universe — should so masterfully bring the whole grand endeavor to its lusty, lurid, ugly, joyously just and beautifully wrathful conclusion.

I am in awe.

And I have just learned, there are at least three more books in the same series.

Stars: Six. Out of five.

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14 comments

  1. I’ve just finished reading Fifth Business. I made sure that I ordered a copy of the Deptford Trilogy when I was ordering some other stuff from Amazon recently.

    It is all you say. It is, without a doubt, utterly brilliant.

    I started reading it on Sunday night when I was utterly exhausted. I finished it tonight and loved every minute of it.

    I have to admit, I figured out who killed Boy Staunton as soon as the circumstances of his death were explained. Maybe not the whys and wherefores of it, but I had the same “a-ha” sense of clarity that I had when I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable for the first time. (About five minutes before the end, I thought to myself, “Hey, there isn’t an antagonist in this… DAMN!”

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, and then the Cornish trilogy after that.

  2. I’ve just finished reading Fifth Business. I made sure that I ordered a copy of the Deptford Trilogy when I was ordering some other stuff from Amazon recently.

    It is all you say. It is, without a doubt, utterly brilliant.

    I started reading it on Sunday night when I was utterly exhausted. I finished it tonight and loved every minute of it.

    I have to admit, I figured out who killed Boy Staunton as soon as the circumstances of his death were explained. Maybe not the whys and wherefores of it, but I had the same “a-ha” sense of clarity that I had when I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable for the first time. (About five minutes before the end, I thought to myself, “Hey, there isn’t an antagonist in this… DAMN!”

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, and then the Cornish trilogy after that.

  3. I went looking for a copy today. Didn’t come up with the goods, but I did snag myself a second-hand copy of The Cornish Trilogy in a single volume for $7.50.

    I’ll probably order the Deptford Trilogy from Amazon next time I make an order there.

  4. From an RPG perspective, this is a novel about a character in a sixty-year-long campaign revealing that he is a major player-character, and not a minor NPC as everyone supposed… and that he has been a PC since the beginning of the game.

  5. Fifth Business was Davies’s fourth novel, but it appears to be first in a trilogy, and Manticore is the second book… which is off to a very, very promising start, especially since it’s clear from the way the book opens that you don’t have to read them in order at all.

    • Fifth Business was Davies’s fourth novel, but it appears to be first in a trilogy, and Manticore is the second book… which is off to a very, very promising start, especially since it’s clear from the way the book opens that you don’t have to read them in order at all.

  6. I first heard of this book when reading Chris Kubasik’s excellent Interactive Toolkit series of RPG essays from about 10 or more years ago.

    I had no idea what it was about, so I hadn’t really bothered to track it down.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for it, given what you’ve said about it.

  7. I first heard of this book when reading Chris Kubasik’s excellent Interactive Toolkit series of RPG essays from about 10 or more years ago.

    I had no idea what it was about, so I hadn’t really bothered to track it down.

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for it, given what you’ve said about it.

    • From an RPG perspective, this is a novel about a character in a sixty-year-long campaign revealing that he is a major player-character, and not a minor NPC as everyone supposed… and that he has been a PC since the beginning of the game.

      • I went looking for a copy today. Didn’t come up with the goods, but I did snag myself a second-hand copy of The Cornish Trilogy in a single volume for $7.50.

        I’ll probably order the Deptford Trilogy from Amazon next time I make an order there.

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