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Life’s Delphic journey—with mayhem

Days by Moonlight is the fifth in André Alexis’ Quincunx Cycle and winner of the 2019 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Days by Moonlight is a meditation on daily absurdities and the human experience—confusing, compassionate, uproarious, ridiculous, painful, mystifying, and numinous. Or, perhaps more succinctly, as Grandpa Gordie puts it in What We Did on Our Holiday: “The truth is, every human being is ridiculous in his own way.” And oh, how many ways there are . . .

This tale, like so many, is structured by a journey. Young botanist, Alfred, has been asked by an old family friend, Professor Bruno, to drive and accompany him in his quest to learn firsthand about the life of a revered poet who suddenly disappeared from public life, and perhaps from the earth itself, at an early age. Since Alfred has recently lost his parents and has suffered the devastation of a marital break-up, why not? He welcomes something to fill his time and he’ll be able to sketch botanical specimens from around the countryside.

The deeper our protagonists go into small-town Ontario, the stranger things become. Every place has secrets and baffling rituals: an annual home burning in one town; the surreal Indigenous parade in another. A few places feature vicious dogs and dangerous people. There’s the Black town where residents converse only by means of their own sign language—and hilarity ensues when Professor Bruno, not being fluent, tries his “hand” at conversation. This book made me laugh. A lot, Inappropriately. Who doesn’t love a good, inappropriate laugh? And who couldn’t love a story filled with lines such as: “Had he really been possessed by a pig possessed by a demon? The idea wasn’t easy for an atheist to accept.”

When I read in the endnotes that Don Quixote de la Mancha was one of the book’s inspirations, it made sense: I’d already been thinking of Professor Bruno and Alfred as a kind of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pair. On their quest, they meet characters who they hope can tell them about the poet, and as they try to unearth the man’s history, they hear stories; and sometimes stories within stories; and sometimes stories within stories within stories—and perhaps we’ve entered a fantasy, or perchance another reality. We feel our minds groping backwards to close the door opened by one story and then the next and the next, in order to find our moorings, while all the time, new and more enigmatic doors are opening.

Alfred finds his gift—or is it a gift? He and Professor Bruno find answers to their questions—or do they? Find the mysterious poet himself—or have they? Find their way back home—or did they? And they are again in reality—or are they lost in a dream?

Back in Toronto, Alfred walks to the lake and sits sketching the waving grasses and watching the changeable waters and he closes his eyes to imagine his parents. “What a strange world you’ve left me,” he says. Aand his mother responds: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know the half of it.” And his father adds: “No one knows anywhere near that much!”

And so, Alfred must go on, not knowing much at all, in this astonishing, fathomless life.

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