By Audrey Thomas. Dundurn, 208 pp, softcover
Local Customs, the new novel from celebrated writer Audrey Thomas—who divides her time between Victoria and Galiano Island—was almost a half-century in the making.
As Thomas recounts in the afterword, she first encountered the story of Letitia Landon in 1965, when her husband was teaching in Ghana. Landon was the wife of the governor of Cape Coast Castle in the 1830s; the “mystery [that] still surrounded her death” more than a century later piqued Thomas’s interest and curiosity. “I was a writer and I made a mental note of this.”
Almost 50 years later, Local Customs is Thomas’s vision of the life and death (and afterlife) of Landon; to say it is worth the wait is nonsensical, but valid. It’s a stunning novel.
Local Customs vividly evokes London and a West African stronghold in the 1830s—Cape Coast Castle was a former commercial fort from the days of slavery—subtly drawing comparisons and contrasts between the two worlds. Thomas’s impressionistic use of a multitude of narrative voices, some living, some dead—Rashomon meets The Lovely Bones—allows for both a variety of viewpoints and significantly deeper insight into the characters than might otherwise be possible.
At the centre of it all is Landon herself, a moderately successful writer who, as the novel opens, is in her mid 30s and living with the dread of becoming the clichéd spinster aunt, “an elderly lady living in a pokey room at my brother’s house”. Her failure in meeting a respectable husband is due, in part, to a whispered-about scandal in her past (and also, it must be noted, to a certain prickliness of her character, which comes across even in her own accounting of herself). When she is introduced to George MacLean, on leave home from his posting at Cape Coast Castle, she inveigles her way into his life, and within days they are engaged. After their wedding, they ship off back to Africa; eight weeks later, she is found dying in her locked room. Was it an accident? Suicide? Poisoning? Sickness?
The mystery remains, with Thomas bravely allowing readers to connect the dots for themselves. The ambiguity of the novel only contributes to the haunting, dreamlike feel of this stunning book from one of Canada’s great, too-little-lauded literary figures.
Audrey Thomas will read from Local Customs at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch on April 16, as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest's Incite series.