As a child in a Vancouver park, Hugh Dalgarno first heard, “the voice of the whole green world singing to me at once—the hill, the sky, the distant trees, the black and muddy pools between their roots.” It is the call of a bird he cannot see, and so for years he is free to imagine it:
This freedom could not last. The bird began as a great, plumed, colourful creature in my mind, a peacock or a toucan or a turaco blown north from Brazil and calling forlornly in a language the other birds did not know. As I got older and came to see the unlikeliness of this, I was nevertheless sure it must be a long-legged, graceful bird like a heron or a crane.
So the great hopes of childhood are chipped away, and by the time we meet Hugh, the narrator of Falling Hour (Coach House Books), the debut novel by the Canadian writer Geoffrey D. Morrison, sitting on the grass in an Ontario park on a muggy June afternoon, he has seen the bird in question—the unremarkable, unremarkably named, and entirely common red-winged blackbird. The bird, its call, its appearance (with “epaulettes of red with gold trim, like a circus ringmaster’s,” a lovely turn of phrase), its history, its personal resonance for Hugh, form a living frame to the story that unfolds.
There is also a more literal frame in novel; literally, a wooden frame that Hugh has brought to the park hoping to sell to a no-show buyer. He doesn’t exactly need the money but wants the sense of purpose the transaction will give his life for an hour or two, a task to give shape to the day because his brain is “broken”: thinking is like “trying to keep a fistful of optical fibres together in one hand while the other was tied behind my back, powerless therefore to stop the strands from splitting away.”
And from there we are on to threads, to Keats writing about “the fibres of the brain,” to the textile industry, to artisan weavers in Scotland, to Keats’ visit to Scotland 201 years before Hugh’s afternoon in the park, to Hugh’s Scottish ancestry. And from there, through many leaps and spirals of thought and free associations, to Marx; to Ada Lovelace; to the snail-shell logic of Calvinism and what it did to the Scots; to what Methodism did to Canada; to what the British did to the Irish, the Indigenous people of Canada, and other peoples throughout their empire; to the transformations in form and meaning of an old folk song; to Hugh’s (or Morrison’s) literary forebears; to the meaning of the term “stream of consciousness;” to the functions of language and poetry; stopping back to consider Keats again many times.
Hugh’s thoughts are interspersed with personal memories and facts about his current life. His is a deeply lonely existence, though he does not truly examine the word until over halfway through the book. The death of his guardians, the extended family in a country he has not visited since he left. His self-described life in a “suffering inland post-industrial town.” Though Hugh insists that it is his brain that is broken, late in the day he references a man who died of a broken heart. “That premodern ailment that nobody is permitted to die from now.” Might this be an alternative reading of his personal troubles?
Hugh’s real parents were heroin addicts in Scotland, and he was adopted by a great aunt and uncle in Vancouver. “Their idea was that by growing up in North America I would escape the accent and mannerisms and social milieu of the housing scheme, which in Scotland would have narrowed the horizons of my life. One of us, at least, would ‘get on.'”
But despite a secure, atheist, and socialist upbringing in a co-op in Vancouver, the Hugh we meet has not “got on” and is “a permanent member of the confused men of the earth.” He donates a quarter of his salary to the Party of Socialist Workers but does not attend meetings. He was an outsider in his West Coast childhood, remains an outsider in Ontario, and would be an outsider were he to return to his birthplace.
And so he walks in the park with his rambling thoughts, though it is unclear whether this is down to neurodivergence, a psychiatric condition, or simply the contradictions of living in the modern world. He walks, a man alone among a nonhuman supporting cast: the frame, a red-winged blackbird, the dark pond that the narrative skittishly circles, the scattered sand-grey buildings of a regional Ontario centre in decline, the absent buyer. Or rather, Hugh strives toward some kind of release. And he strives to understand and diagnose Canada, a country he finds deeply menacing and “made up, conceived in blood and darkness like a hideous deep-sea fish . . . one of the most laughable forgeries ever conceived in the world.”
Though the structure of the book, with its introspective and wandering protagonist, has drawn inevitable comparisons to W. G. Sebald among reviewers, there is a significant difference in tone: a Sebaldian narrator seems never to raise his voice; Morrison’s Hugh Dalgarno is burning with barely-suppressed rage. He is earnest and conflicted; he wears his political heart on his sleeve and is prone to rants against the many injustices of the world. As a white immigrant socialist raised by other white immigrant socialists, Hugh is particularly preoccupied with his place in all of this, in what it means to flee an old country just to bring devastation to the original population of the new.
His fresh start, the unsuccessful project of his “getting on,” are also arms for a Canada, the project whose “whole basis was obliteration,” all premised on the theft of land from Indigenous people. A working-class child fleeing personal obliteration nonetheless becomes a tool in a countrywide program of erasure. For so has it always been, Hugh asserts. Métis leader Louis Riel wrote to an Irish newspaper that the British were pursuing the same project around the world, and Keats wrote of the backwards Scots with disdain, even as his brother moved to America and owned slaves. And so on, and so forth, in the snail-shell mind of our protagonist.
There is impressive control in the deployment of these mind spirals, with Morrison integrating link after link into a narrative that grows more complex but keeps all its many balls in the air, the kind of juggler who satisfies and surprises with what he is able to toss into the mix. The personal story, too, though sometimes underdeveloped, leads to a moving climax, unexpected for all that it is hinted at in the first paragraph.
Not everything is seamless. At times, one of Hugh’s well-reasoned arguments will crash down with some awkward bluntness: “I do not know what can be said about that beyond the obvious” or “I am aware this is confusing. How do you think I feel?” Some connections between the large cast of key issues feel forced, sometimes the reader may find that other interpretations, equally plausible, suggest themselves. And while most time in the text is devoted to Hugh’s excavations of history, politics and literature, Morrison may be at his best when harnessing them into an old-fashioned story.
He does so at one point, telling a childhood anecdote of him and his guardian spying on the family next door—who they were, how they inhabited this Canada they had claimed, how the mother reads a Canadian classic about European settlers, how the father snarls at the TV watching hockey—and this spreads naturally into an outsider’s analysis of sitcoms, of North American culture, of a particular kind of masculinity:
As I got older I would see that this was the essential truth of the country I lived in: a man on a couch barking at a hockey fight, perhaps barking even more if the fight allowed him to play-act some ethnic or sectarian grudge match.
Hugh finds these slanted tales of ordinary life equally as informative as Keats’s biography, or the diaristic musings of Virginia Woolf, an admitted influence, who denigrated the “self-taught working man” who wrote Ulysses. Hugh feels himself, like Joyce, to be autodidactic, and while there are textual echoes with Ulysses, Morrison channels all the cerebral side the novel and none of its bawdiness. Closer to home, Michel Tremblay’s French-Canadian classic The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant would make a tighter counter-read, as a single afternoon in a Montreal park and a potentially magical transformation spools into a portrait of community, rather than Hugh’s solitude.
And though Hugh likely prefers Dickinson to Dickens, his story is a kind of Great Expectations. The Victorian boy who gets on through colonial plunder, vs. the twenty-first-century man-child, both convict and beneficiary, who fails to get on because he sees the system of colonial plunder for what it is, and cannot look away.