Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

January 7, 2013

Canada Reads 2013 Review #2 – The Age of Hope

David Bergen preempted this review in the last chapter of The Age of Hope with a scene in which Hope’s middle daughter, Penny, divulges her intention to write a novel that sounds like it’s likely to be a biography of her mother.

“It will be too episodic. You’ll need some backbone to the story. A plot. My life was plotless.” Hope tells her daughter. Later she thinks her friend Emily’s life might make a better book. “What was so important about Hope Koop? Emily, in every way, had lived a more interesting life.”

Emily isn’t the only one. Hope is surrounded by people whose lives sound as if they would make good novels: her Olympian daughter, her strange, tumultuous, declining son, her cousin caged in marriage, a hitch-hiking indigenous man, even her house-cleaning Communist co-worker. These colourful supporting characters might have livened up the book but for Hope’s solipsism  She is so “mystified” by herself, the world, and the people in it that the other people who appear in her life are pushed away, appearing only in glimpses seen at a distance.  It is as if Bergen’s project was to pluck a character from the margins, the most ordinary background character he could think of, and do them some kind of justice by giving them centre stage.

While I appreciate Bergen’s desire to give a voice to a demographic that is not given enough credit, good intentions on behalf of the author do not make a good story. Hope’s story is boring. Bergen mirrors the simple mediocrity of Hope’s life with equally simple, mediocre language and leaves the reader very little to hold on to.

Hope has brushes with plot – episodes – which threaten, occasionally, to turn into interesting stories. She has a nervous breakdown and spends time in an institution having electroshock therapy. She has to rebuild her life after a bankruptcy.  In late life she meets a man and embarks, abortively, on a new, adult relationship. But none of these episodes are given much page space or gravitas, and Hope’s relentless ignorance and obstinacy prevent her from really taking these events into herself, letting them change her or put her on a new path. No, they are blips, potholes, on the road through her dull, mediocre life.

What was perhaps the most baffling thing about Age of Hope was how other characters would occasionally suggest that what we were reading was somehow extraordinary. Hope’s friends comment about how different she is. Her different way of looking at things. She reads books, we’re told, though she doesn’t often seem to like or understand them. If this was meant to suggest that the people of Hope’s community were on the whole even more self-centred, ignorant and little-minded than she was, I am terrified for the people of Manitoba.  The few moments of free-thinking and charity she afforded others hardly warrant more than a golf clap. Stayed friends with your friend the divorcee? Yah, okay. Drove your daughter’s friend out for an abortion? Want a medal?

Perhaps this was a very bad reader/book pairing, but I found very little to like in this book. At least when Dostoevsky wrote The Adolescent he was purposely painting a portrait of a headstrong, self-absorbed, painful stage of human development. Hope, on the other hand, never grows up. If anything, she becomes more adolescent as she ages.

Perhaps I missed the joke, though. Perhaps “Age of Hope” was meant to be ironic, and this was a cynical tirade against the generation that squandered the wealth of a civilization. That might help me justify why Bergen, a perfectly competent writer, bothered “tackling” this story. Alas, that might be too much to Hope for.

My money is still on Indian Horse. And I Hope you’ll join us on Twitter Thursday, January 10th 2013 at 2pm EST to discuss Age of Hope under the #Canadareads hashtag! You can read a roundup of the reviews at Bookgaga’s blog here.

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