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Eric McCormack’s Cloud: A powerful and magical book

Eric McCormack, author and teacher at University of Waterloo.

Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

Eric McCormack
432 pages

I don't know whether it says more about our limited attention spans as readers or the sheer abundance of new books every year, but it's a sad truth: when too long goes by without a new release, it's easy to forget about a writer, even one we admire greatly.

Such was the case, for me, with Eric McCormack. In the dozen years since the publication of the Scottish-born writer's last novel The Dutch Wife, McCormack largely dropped off my radar, despite how strongly I responded to his fiction, with its elements of magic realism and historical bending – an approach one could call Ontario gothic.

Thus it was that I greeted the news of his new novel Cloud with a certain amount of embarrassment (how could I have forgotten him?) and a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I couldn't wait to read the book, but I was worried: would he still have that unique touch? And would I, more than a decade later, respond to it with the same enthusiasm?

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The answer to both questions, thankfully, is a resounding yes. While one can't say it was worth the wait – I would, honestly, rather have had three or four new novels in that time, but that's not really up to the reader – and despite a slightly shaky ending, Cloud is a powerful, magical book, rooted in tightly crafted characters thrust into larger-than-life events.

The novel begins in, roughly, the present day, with Harry Steen attending a mining conference in La Verdad, Mexico. Escaping a sudden storm, Steen ducks into a used bookstore, where he finds an old book, "blotched with mildew and dampness," entitled The Obsidian Cloud: An account of a singular occurrence within living memory over the skies of the town of Duncairn in the County of Ayrshire. While the book itself chronicles a mysterious, potentially magical meteorological phenomena in the 19th century, when the skies above the Scottish town were blanketed with a cloud so black it actually reflected the world beneath, Steen is actually drawn to the book because of his personal experiences with Duncairn. In his youth, hired on as a schoolteacher, he spent several months in the town, "then slipped away on the train at dawn one foggy morning, broken-hearted and mystified."

These central mysteries – of the obsidian cloud and of what happened to Steen – propel the narrative, but the novel spins off from there, chronicling the entirety of Steen's life, from his birth and childhood in the destitution of the Tollgate area of Glasgow to his experiences in Africa, the South Pacific and South America, and his eventual settlement in Camberloo (an imagined community in Ontario which has appeared in most of McCormack's fiction. The town approximates Cambridge and Waterloo, where McCormack has lived and taught most of his life).

Steen's life takes on a picaresque quality, every adventure leading into the next with a reckless, carefree abandon. It's also a life touched with magic and mystery, tragedy and loss.

It is virtually impossible not to be caught up in the momentum of Cloud, the impulse to read it at a gulp. Such a reading, though, might obscure the deeper, more contemplative side of the novel, and blur its more subtle mysteries. Why, for example, are the books Steen finds aboard the SS Charybdis where he signs on as crew after fleeing Africa – "even their titles still haunt me: Inspecting the Faults, The Paladine Hotel, The Wysterium, Last Blast of the Cornet and A Dutch Life" – all parodies of McCormack's previous novels?

And, noting that, what is the significance of the names throughout the novel? The SS Charybdis, the Gardyloo, Isla Perdida, and even La Verdad, Mexico all have resonances and references both beyond the text and form crucial signposts within the novel itself. In a novel replete with magic and myth, they form a subtle sub-strata, there for the looking (and for future graduate work), but unobtrusive. They also contribute to what might be the key to the book, uttered by a character late in the novel: "You've put your finger on a dangerous aspect of the writing profession – the inability of writers to separate reality from fiction." Steen, in chronicling his life, refracted through the lens of the mysterious antiquarian book, seems content with that blurring.

And readers will be delighted by it.

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Unfortunately, McCormack falls prey to another dangerous aspect of the writing profession: the difficulty of endings. The last two dozen pages of the novel don't rise to the rest of Cloud, and run the risk of flattening its effect considerably. That they don't says more about just how powerful the rest of the novel is: even an unfortunate ending does little to still the magic at the heart of the book.

Robert Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.

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