It’s Canada Day, and we’re celebrating with our neighbors to the north by recommending this distinctly Canadian masterpiece.
Robertson Davies is one of Canada’s best writers, and any book of his you read will be amazing. Fifth Business is the about how a child’s carelessness leads to the ruin of multiple lives and begins a middle-aged obsession.
It opens with the event—Dunstan Ramsay is a young boy in a Canadian town. His best friend and sparring partner in childhood, Percy Staunton, throws a snowball it him while quarreling. Dunstan ducks, and the snowball hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the local minister. The shock causes her to give birth to a premature child and unhinges her mind.
The book follows Dunstan’s life from there. As a young boy, Dunstan experiences both fascination and pity for the wife, as well as guilt about the premature child and immerses himself in his study of the saints.
Later, Dunstan fights in World War I and spends an extensive time as an invalid. He begins to believe that Mary may be a fool-saint. He returns home to find that Percy has prospered in the war, and the two become friends.
The guilt Dunstan feels is exacerbated by Percy’s successes, and comes to a horrible climax where all the events from the past swirl around like angry ghosts.
Robertson Davies is a writer of amazing depth and lyrical language. His layered storytelling invokes Jungian archetypes and synchronicity, in addition to religious and societal themes. This is not an easy read, but a very rewarding one.