Book 38, Tempest-Tost (1951) – Robertson Davies
This is the first novel of Robertson Davies, set in the fictional city of Salterton (a stand-in for Kingston, Ontario). In this comedy of manners, various characters come together to put on a Little Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest but some have ulterior motives and other agendas on their minds.
Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Robertson Davies
Reviewing this book on its own merits is a bit difficult. Throughout the entire reading experience, I couldn’t help but evaluate it with Davies’ later works in mind, as the precursor of the Deptford and Cornish trilogies (I have yet to read either of the Toronto trilogy books). That’s always a danger when you get familiar with an author and their “mature”* work and then go back to read the early stuff.
Looking at it in isolation, I would say it was an enjoyable read with quirky characters and some description of Canadian life in a small Ontario city. There were a few rather humourous episodes and Davies’ wit was to the fore a number of times. This was not a book of either major tragedy or drama (the worst thing that happens, happens to a horse, though there was a point where the novel could have turned very grim indeed), just a glimpse into a community over the course of a couple of months.
Looking at it as the prelude to the rest of Davies’ novels, one can certainly pick out similarities to and differences from the latter. For example, it had the exposition of characters that is so intrinsic to Fifth Business and World of Wonders, but not to the same degree. It had a short description of Hector’s background and childhood that was reminiscent of the more thorough treatment given to Francis Cornish in What’s Bred in the Bone. From the prominent place of allusion in the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (e.g. Paracelsus in Rebel Angels and Arthurian myth in The Lyre of Orpheus), I was expecting a similar exploration of The Tempest, but didn’t get it. The play itself hardly figured at all.
*It seems a bit odd to characterise anything produced by Davies as anything other than mature–was he ever a young man??