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Review: Linden MacIntyre's The Only Café will transfix readers with its disquieting and cautionary narrative

Linden MacIntyre demonstrates his dexterity as a storyteller in his new novel, The Only Café, which follows the protagonist as he seeks to learn some unsettling details about his late father’s life.

John Hryniuk/The Globe and Mail

Title
The Only Café
Author
Linden MacIntyre
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Random House Canada
Pages
432
Price
$32

Sometimes your past catches up to you. Then again, sometimes you reach back and drag it into the present.

Take Pierre Cormier (né Haddad) of The Only Café, the latest novel by Linden MacIntyre, author of Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning The Bishop's Man, among other works. Pierre's catharsis-minded insistence on reckoning with his murky and murderous exploits decades earlier in his native Lebanon may be what leads to his demise in 2007. In 2012, son Cyril takes up Pierre's abortive mission. MacIntyre weaves his way through the lives of both men by means of an omniscient narrator who alternately inhabits the mind of each. So long as you tune out the persistent thrum of deus ex machina (a series of extraordinarily unlikely coincidences propels the tale forward), The Only Café will transfix you with its disquieting and cautionary narrative.

The story begins in Toronto in 2012, five years after Pierre's presumed death in an apparently accidental propane-tank explosion aboard his pleasure boat just off Cape Breton. Only now, with the discovery of a bone traceable to him, are insurers satisfied that he's dead. In an addendum to his will, which is finally unsealed, Pierre uncharacteristically requests that he be subjected to a roast at the Only Café, presided over by "Ari." Nobody close to him has heard of either the establishment or the man. This intrigues Cyril, who makes his way to Danforth Avenue and an unfamiliar neighbourhood to take the measure of the place – "[a] café that was really just a bar with coffee on the side" – meet Ari, an Israeli Canadian who's apparently a regular, and investigate.

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MacIntyre's virtuosic turn consists not so much in having Ari serve as linchpin of Cyril's and Pierre's respective quests, but in his judicious and expertly timed parcelling out of what the enigmatic and vaguely malefic barfly knows about his interlocutors. And since you, the reader, are privy to Ari's exchanges with both Pierre and Cyril, you're always one step ahead of either.

What is there to know about Pierre? Plenty that's unsettling. Thanks to sections set in wartime Lebanon, we learn that Pierre's (Christian) family was killed by Palestinian or Palestinian-aligned militiamen. He then joined a Christian militia that, some months following its ally Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, perpetrated the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp.

Upon meeting Ari at the Only Café in 2007, more than two decades after having come to Canada, Pierre thinks he's seen him before – guess where? Ari admits that he was in Israeli army intelligence during the invasion of Lebanon, but denies any connection to Sabra and Shatila. A grief-stricken Pierre, haunted by Lebanon flashbacks and battling prostate cancer, wants to confess his sins to his new friend. Crucially, however, he also pushes for a confession from Ari, whose (fake) bonhomie now transmogrifies into something approaching menace.

"Remember what happened to Hobeika?" Ari asks rhetorically, referring to the commander of Pierre's militia unit. (Real-life) Elie Hobeika, long tied to Sabra and Shatila, was assassinated by unknown parties in 2002, on the eve of planned court testimony that he promised would implicate Israel's then-prime minister Ariel Sharon more deeply in the slaughter than was already the case.

It falls upon Cyril, 24, a lowly newsroom intern at a television station, roundly ignorant of Lebanon's history, burdened by strained relationships with both his girlfriend and mother, never close to his aloof father, to crack the late Pierre's relationship with Ari. And to determine whether it caused his death. Some of this novel's most electrifying moments emerge from Cyril's detective work at the Only Café and on Cape Breton's Mabou Coal Mines coast.

MacIntyre, admittedly, cannot resist using coincidence as a story engine. In Lebanon, an ostensibly hostile militiaman allowed a teenaged Pierre to escape execution. A few years later (still in Lebanon), he returned the favour. In 2007, Pierre's Sabra and Shatila flashbacks are triggered by a fatal shooting at a mine in Indonesia run by the Canadian company of which he's a vice-president. Then he meets Ari. Cyril's involvement follows a similar pattern; as he uncovers a startling Lebanon link between his father and the Only Café's creepiest patron, a colleague of his at the TV station discovers that Ari may be in cahoots with CSIS in the monitoring and even entrapment of Canadian Muslims.

For all his stylistic excesses, the author retains a firm grip on his subject matter. This may derive from his own past. Lebanon, Israel's invasion, Sabra and Shatila, Cyril learning the ropes at a major TV network? Think: The recently retired MacIntyre's storied career at the CBC, which included filing irregular reports from Lebanon over the decades. Cape Breton, where Pierre meets his end and Cyril goes digging for clues? Think: MacIntyre's home region, the setting for several of his novels, and where The Only Café's elegant prose attains a lyrical quality, as with, "The sun was melting on the edge of the sea, pooling and running in a silver path toward the shore."

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It is a testament to MacIntyre's dexterity as a storyteller that he succeeds in channelling these disparate elements into a tale which, despite its convoluted engagement with a Middle Eastern country's even more convoluted conflict, remains cohesive. Additionally, as befits The Only Café's layered structure, any given motif admits of more than one meaning or message. The novel's most manifest theme is no exception; beneath it lurks a chastening caveat.

Your past, however moribund, will overcome any and all attempts on your part to kill it. Indeed, "the past is never dead as long as there is memory." Conversely, however, beware of ever fully reviving it; for your past seldom belongs to you alone.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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