By Michael V. Smith. Cormorant, 261 pp, softcover
Author and educator Michael V. Smith likes to present a sophisticated and slightly wicked front, with his fashionable attire and urbane sense of humour. So it’s surprising to pick up his second novel, Progress, and discover that he has a genuine talent for writing parables, although his moral instruction is rooted as much in socialism as the Christian tradition.
That’s obvious from the book’s epigraph, a quote from the novelist and philosopher John Berger that sets up the 20th-century struggle between capitalism and a more enlightened world-view—a battle that’s far from over—as “a fight about the content of progress”. It’s a useful lens through which to view Smith’s Progress, which on a superficial level is just another family drama about difference and acceptance and coming to terms with the small-town past, like literally hundreds of other books available on the CanLit shelves. The key characters, too, often seem like they’ve been sent over from central casting. Smith calls the siblings Helen and Robbie Massey, although they could just as easily be named the Dutiful Daughter and the Prodigal Son. She’s plodding through her gender-mandated task of caring for her dying parents and then cleaning up after them once they’re gone, while he was thrust out of the family bosom as a teen, following the revelation of his homosexuality—and that of his sister’s conflicted, closeted fiancé.
Looming over the action is the concrete monolith of a hydro dam, soon to swamp the small town where the Prodigal Son grew up and the Dutiful Daughter still lives, all in the name of progress and cheap electricity. Ironically, the building of a structure intended to contain a once-wild river opens the floodgates for a torrent of emotion, as family secrets are revealed and awkward truths confronted.
Smith’s plainspoken style serves this story well. The principal characters are both iconic in their purpose and believable in their human frailty, while the book’s moral message—that real progress can be measured in the way we treat each other—is delivered so subtly that it doesn’t sink in until the last page is turned.