Our Lady of the Snows
Date Published: 1986
Number of Pages:
Print Price: $5.19
eBook Price: $
I must admit, reading a new author is generally something I do via an intriguing title or the allure of a pretty book cover. I elected to read and review Our Lady of the Snows because lately I had been on a sort of Marian “kick.” Being a life-long Midwesterner, I expected a novel about the Holy Mother and her veneration at the national shrine just outside of St. Louis. However, Mr. Callaghan’s story is based in Toronto and by page four is relating various conversations and concerns among a table filled with prostitutes in an old-town hotel.
Reading the jacket synopsis is always a bit of a spoiler for me, so there was no foreshadowing of what I was getting myself into. But, I had noted in the pre-pages that the author had written steadily from his first published novel in 1928, adding about 20 more to the list at regular intervals into the 1980s. I thought that at least by way of proliferation of the author’s work, there should be something worthwhile ahead in this alternative “Our Lady.” So, I read on!
I have to say that I liked the clarity of the writing. Pictures fell neatly into my head as I read his words, but confusion set in where the characters were concerned. There was such an expansive cast that it was really tough sometimes to keep score. Another sad effect of such a populated story is the lack of depth past initial introductions. To get anyone really embedded in my head well enough to understand them, their life, their purpose, their reason for being on the page, was unrewarded work. The answers, and/or further back story, just were not available to the reader.
As for the title, I was never sure which of three possibilities it had sprung from. Was it alluding to a rather pristinely-kept, sparkling white building, the Bradley, in a run-down part of the city around which much of the story is anchored? Or was it named in reference to the apparitional warning the cripple-legged iron-booted pimp, Dubuque, sees one night in a dream? I think the most likely source of inspiration comes as a nod to the character Ilana, an exotically mink-clad Hungarian lady of the evening who selectively chooses her “Johns,” infuriates the other “girls” and whom everyone seems to fixate on and want...pardon the off-color pun...a piece of.
Overall, I think Our Lady of the Snows is a multi-directional story of illusion and appearances struggling to override reality. It’s also a window into the lives of many who battle within over their place in the world, conflicting with the calling they sense but cannot seem to attain. Illusion after illusion is chased, assumed and challenged throughout the book. A criminal and pimp want to be seen as upstanding and important businessmen. A bartender waits out his temporary stint serving drinks, poised to write the next great novel as soon as the right material springs forth. A daughter born to poor immigrants who dares to quash her parent’s outdated ways and wishes is then cast into the role of provider and visual symbol of aristocracy past. Other assorted and less fully described characters breeze through and buzz about the Bradley living out their years and odd lifestyles fully accepting their personal lot in life, but also noticing perceived “betters” of others with great discomfort. I felt like I was seeing the score for “Hotel California” before the song was written.
I know it will seem prudish in current society to offer a word of caution to readers about the rough language, but offer it I will because it also speaks to the general feel of the story. At times the prose is shockingly vulgar, which falls in line with the subject matter. However, the “f-bombs” that pop from the page are a bit stilted in effect when planted alongside Callaghan’s tamer yet believable style of dialogue. If he meant to insert profanities into a few conversations for shock value or emphasis, this effort falls short. In a tale where the setting is rather grey to beige, covered up with snow and slush and smoke from the bar and lounge, his use of curse word punctuation seems just a beat or two off from the rest of the band. The insertion seems more like a distraction than a solid point of emphasis.
At the end of the book, I felt like I had just finished the opening act of what could have been better written as a trilogy. Too many juicy snippets were left hanging that could have easily been fleshed out into something more. Also, many of the introduced and quickly discarded characters were people I felt interested in following along a fuller path. In all candor, I felt Our Lady of the Snows read like an overview of a larger work. If you enjoy a read that stops in a rather open ended manner, this is one that will leave you satisfied by its wealth of unaddressed “what ifs.”
In fairness to Morley Callaghan (and due to my own curiosity) I looked into some other reviews of his work. As luck would have it, this book seems to be hands-down the least well received / lowest rated one of his rather lauded career. Maybe therein lies a lesson to this reader...titles aren’t everything, or as the old adage goes: “Assuming only makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me!’ So I will be revising my selection method and re-read some reviews of his other works. Overall, the writing was good, so I would like to give Morley another try.Publisher: Macmillan
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