David Adams Richards, Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011. 304 pages.
Reviewed by Nicole O’Byrne
Incidents is a profound and remarkable novel. Ostensibly, it is a murder mystery in which the title character, a Mi’kmaq RCMP officer named Markus Paul, seeks to unravel the truth behind a mysterious death that has remained unsolved for more than 20 years. The story weaves back and forth through time as Markus struggles to discover who actually caused the death of a teenage Mi’kmaq boy in the hold of a ship loading pulpwood on the Miramichi River. This event set off a cascade of events beginning with the wrongful accusation against a non-Aboriginal man, Roger Savage; it climaxed with a blockade and further tragedy in the community.
This murder mystery serves as a lens through which David Adams Richards illuminates complex contemporary issues: the lingering effects of colonization, band council governance, systemic racism and the invidious nature of prejudice. A masterful storyteller, Richards has created a narrative that confronts what is arguably the most pressing sociopolitical issue in Canada today – the tenuous nature of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.
Often labelled a regional writer, Richards is better described as a modern-day Dickens or Tolstoy. Like them, he creates nuanced and complex characters through whom the reader is obliged to grapple with major themes common to human experience. Like the best 19th-century realist writers, Richards has a deep understanding of place. So much so that the Miramichi Valley becomes almost another character in the novel. His characters are shaped by the Miramichi; however, his weaving of universal themes into the story allows him to escape the boundaries that limit parochial authors.
One such theme is seen through Markus Paul’s reflection on C.S. Lewis’s notion of the “Inner Ring,” the idea that all human beings struggle to be accepted as part of a community, whether it be the workplace, school or reserve. The desire to be included can warp judgement and compel us to decisions that we would not make otherwise. Throughout the novel, the fear of exclusion drives the characters. Some characters withstand this pressure; they suffer from isolation as a result. Markus Paul’s grandfather, Chief Amos Paul, resists the pressure from other members of the reserve to accuse Roger Savage as the murderer. Amos Paul’s decision to search for the truth leads to his being ostracized and isolated within his reserve community. His choice resonates within his grandson, and Markus is driven to discover the truth behind the murder. (more…)