Saturday, July 3, 2010

Anne Denoon

by Anne Denoon
Porcupine's Quill, 2002

Backflip is set in Toronto's art community in Canada's centennial year, 1967. Anne Denoon has recreated with exceptional clarity the provincial nature of the city on the verge of a cosmopolitan boom - and a national culture on the verge of an introspective renaissance. Denoon's Toronto may be set in the same year as Expo, but her Canada is pre-nationalist obsession. And her artists are virtually all abstract expressionists. There is something retro in her retro, which isn't necessarily a problem (just a curiosity).

If Backflip had been written in 1967, it would hold a place alongside The Edible Woman as an example of the new wave of Canadian writing that came of age in the late-1960s. As it is, Backflip will likely disappear with the rest of the wave of small press books published in 2002. Which is a pity, because Backflip is better written than The Edible Woman. It's just as smart, just as quirky, but it also has thirty years of reflection layered into it. Though not self-consciously.

For example, Backflip presents Toronto's male art establishment as blindly misogynistic. Yet, these men are also presented sympathetically - however pathetic they tend to look through 21st century eyes. Denoon doesn't borrow from Atwood the great-Peggy's sly putdowns of men. She just lets the men live out their roles, which are halfway charming and halfway ridiculous.

A plot summary: A young Toronto artist (male) paints "Backflip", a painting that garners special attention at an art show. The gallery owner tells the painter that the painting is sold to an anonymous buyer, but really the owner has kept it for himself. Which becomes relevant when a London, UK, art dealer comes to town looking for work to take to the UK for a trans-Atlantic show. The painting is nowhere to be found, so the painter paints a duplicate. Meanwhile, the artists and poseurs around town are involved in various artistic and sexual intrigues.

Okay, so it's not One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Denoon's characters are brightly realized and her language is precise and robust. This isn't a novel that patronizes the reader, nor does it try to dazzle with obscure prose. Backflip is gripping and heartfelt, and I look forward to more from this author.

Review first published in The Danforth Review.

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