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Review: Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh is more a play than a novel

Close to Hugh by Marina Endicott comes after the success of previous her books Good to a Fault and The Little Shadows.

Title
Close to Hugh
Author
Marina Endicott
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Doubleday Canada
Pages
464
Price
$32.95

Marina Endicott's oddly original and charming new novel, Close to Hugh – following the success of Good to a Fault and The Little Shadows – inhabits a particular geography involving a series of staircases. The two flights up to Hugh Argylle's mother's hospice bed; the concrete stairs from his friend's condo by the river; the claustrophobic staircase with doors at the top and bottom at the home of Hugh's ex-wife who is also, inconveniently, landlady to his new flame; and the steps leading to Hugh's small art gallery just below his apartment, which is up another flight.

Then there is the ladder upon which Hugh is standing, hanging strings of lights, when he falls. Falling is as much a motif in the novel as stairs are. Fall as in the autumn season and one's autumn years, and as in to plummet. Down, like the direction and like feathers, the thing with which is hope, according to Emily Dickinson.

Hugh hits his head and stands up again charged with a surfeit of empathy. All his life has been a struggle to stay buoyant above a tide of despair, but now he's fallen and all he can feel is the unconscionable suffering of the world.

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Close to Hugh is a novel like the game Snakes and Ladders, everybody climbing up or sliding down, though what makes the symbolism especially interesting is that nothing ever means less than six things – to fall can also be to let go, to be released, to fall in love or take flight. Hugh meets Ivy, a visiting teacher at the local performing arts high school, and they embark on a passionate and loving relationship, unexpected to both lovers this late in their lives.

Endicott infuses her text with elements from the high-school students' art projects and their theatrical productions, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Twelfth Night and The Importance of Being Earnest. And while the presence of the young people provides a counter to the experiences of Hugh and friends – the young in ascendance as the years close in for their elders – she too complicates this arrangement by drawing rich connections between individuals in both groups.

She writes beautifully about teenagers: "Ivy loves girls at this age, girls going wild, going like roller derby girls, each one a firecracker, a graceful, mad bacchante flying toward you in a violent swirl of eyes and arms." Her use of technology and social media expands the possibilities of narrative – there is a fantastic scene in which platonic friends (as a joke) declare themselves "in a relationship" on Facebook, sparking immediate response with pings, likes and comments telling them something about themselves they might not have realized. Later, a phone is described as "buzzing like a bottled fly" in someone's hand.

I haven't mentioned plot, mostly because plot is not quite the point. Close to Hugh feels more like a play than a book in its compression of time and space, connections illuminated between characters to create a web in the gossamer sense, in that connections are sometimes barely visible until they shimmer. The novel isat its best when the reader feels at the end of a ribbon, decades of history between characters so connected that nothing need be explained – the complicated relationship between Hugh and his dying mother, between the teenage friends, between Hugh and his foster mother and between a variety of local dingbats.

At other times, the connections are more manufactured. A misunderstanding between Hugh and his friend about her errant husband is elided through artificially unfinished sentences.

Elsewhere, there is too much explanation, although "too-muchness" is to be expected in a novel nearly 500 pages long. It seems as though Endicott has faced a similar challenge as one of her characters – how do you fit the whole wide world into a single piece of art?

It's not only about the staircases. Close to Hugh is also about puns and anagrams – words so conspicuous in their materiality – Jung and Buddhism, show business, homophobia, grief and friendship, flooded basements and vintage fashion. Its prose is stream-of-consciousness, like the river that runs through Endicott's imagined city (a fictionalized Peterborough, Ont.), "where water pours into water like the soul pours itself into the world, over and over, looking for home…"

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Rich with adjectives, the novel addresses huge and general questions about the meaning of life and the universe with remarkable specificity. "We are tiny, unknowable, unimaginably unimportant, far from everything, only close to each other," one character observes, which on a macro level is the point of Close to Hugh but, as the novel demonstrates, is also totally wrong. Because of how art itself brings the world into startling, vivid focus, and suddenly every little thing has meaning after all.

Kerry Clare, a Toronto writer, is the editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood.

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