The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (Shane's books 29-31, 2011)

This trilogy was recommended to me about 20 years ago. It's taken me a while to get around to reading it, clearly. That's a shame because all three books are excellent and reading them has made me keen to read more by Davies.

Robertson Davies was one of Canada's most distinguished authors and most of his novels were grouped in trilogies: the Salterton, Deptford and Cornish trilogies. He died before completing the third book in what his publisher speculates would have become the Toronto Trilogy.

The Deptford Trilogy, which consists of Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders, was published between 1970 and 1975. The three books are connected by the fictional Canadian town of Deptford and spread out from one simple incident: a boy throws a snowball at another boy, who ducks. It hits a pregnant woman and she goes into labour prematurely as a result.

Fifth Business is narrated by Dunstan Ramsay, the boy who ducked. It begins with Ramsay's retirement from the school in which he has spent his whole career as a teacher. Ramsay has never stopped feeling guilty about the fate of Mary Dempster, the woman who was hit by the snowball. She was never the same after the premature birth of her son, Paul, and ended her days in an asylum. Ramsay comes to believe that she is a saint.

The boy who threw the snowball, Percy Staunton, grows up to become a wealthy industrialist and he and Ramsay maintain a strong, though often tense, friendship. Staunton marries Ramsay's former girlfriend and, though Ramsay claims not to have any feelings for the woman, it is interpreted as another of Staunton's victories.

The book tells of Ramsay's experience of the First World War, his travels in pursuit of his academic studies of saints and how he once again meets Paul Dempster, who by now has become Magnus Eisengrim, a world famous magician. Paul's return is the climax of the book.

In The Manticore, Percy Staunton's son, David, is in Switzerland to work with a Jungian psychoanalyst. Davies was very interested in Jung's work and it shows in his highly convincing portrayal of the sessions. David is keen to understand the troubled relationship that he had with his father and, as he explores that, we learn more about the other characters in the story. What's most interesting is the different perspective from which we view Dunstan Ramsay.

The final novel, World of Wonders, sees Magnus Eisengrim starring in a film about the life of Houdini. As he works on the film he tells the producers of his own extraordinary life and career, including years trapped in a travelling show at the mercy of a paedophile and a phase working in a London theatre company. Once again, Davies shows us several characters and incidents from earlier books in a new light.

There is a lot of plot but Davies is primarily interested in character. He treats all of his characters with compassion, even those who are monstrous, but he is also honest enough to show their faults. The portrait of Ramsay is probably the most interesting. Our sympathies are entirely with him in the first book, which we see through his eyes, but later on we come to understand that he has flaws to which he is blind.

For example, was it noble of him to carry the guilt of the snowball incident for his whole life, or was it a foolish obsession with a simple accident? Did he retain his guilt because it allowed him to hold a moral victory over Percy Staunton? Davies does not deal with these questions directly but simply allows them to form, over hundreds of pages, as the novels unfold.

Ramsay counsels his students to write "in the plain style" and Davies follows that style himself. The book is none the worse for that.

What's extraordinary is the way that Davies dives into the stories of one character after another. At times it seems as though he could pick any character and spent a couple of hundred pages exploring their story and it would somehow shed light on his main themes.

Central to all three books is the contrast between the material world and that which we cannot see. In the first book the material world is contrasted with the spiritual world, in the second the contrast is with the subconscious mind and in the third Davies explores ideas of magic and performance.

Throughout, Davies tantalises with the possibility that everything can be traced back to that one incident with the snowball, while demonstrating quite clearly that it cannot. Everything that happens to us is the result of many, many factors.