Fifth Business

by Roberston Davies
ages: adult
First sentence: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”
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I first became aware of this trilogy several years ago when Julie at On the Curve (Back then she was Bookworm…) told me I HAD to read it. I started it, once, got nearly a third of the way in, and then abandoned it because life got in the way.

Thankfully, my online book group chose it for this month’s book, and I was able to sit down to thoroughly enjoy this book.

The first in a trilogy (I will read the other two… later…), Fifth Business is the personal history of Dunstan Ramsey: historian, scholar, Deptford boy. He’s also a friend to Boy Staunton, recently murdered. The history seems almost pointless, aimless in its endeavor: why does Dunstan’s connection with Mrs. Dempster — the woman of the first sentence, and a fairly major presence for much of Dunstan’s life — matter in the ultimate rise and fall in the plot? I found that it didn’t matter: Dunstan’s story, mundane as it was, was immensely fascinating. The writing was at once elegant and accessible: Davies didn’t go in for the long, flowery, overwrought descriptions that seem to plague many authors, instead choosing a first-person narrative that drew you in with simple, yet evocative language.

It was also surprisingly religious. I think I was expecting something more along the lines of the fantastical: magical realism and all that. What I got was an introspective, philosophical work about faith, doubt, and life’s purpose. Dunstan’s fascination with saints, his discussions with the Jesuit priest about a God to help him grow old; all incredibly fascinating, yet somehow didn’t have much to do with the plot.

I wonder — and this is why I’ll eventually get around to reading the other two — how the story all plays out, because this book felt very much like a beginning. While there was a story arc, the plot, the mystery, didn’t kick in until near the very end of the book. Which makes me wonder in what direction the other two books — The Manticore and World of Wonders — takes the plot.

At any rate, Julie (if you’re still out there), you’re right: Davies is a brilliant writer, and this book is definitely worth the time. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

11 thoughts on “Fifth Business

  1. Amanda, I may be the wrong person to say this, but I don't think it was SO religious that it overran the book. I was just surprised it had it at all, since I wasn't expecting that.


  2. Of course I'm still out here, and you'll be in my feed reader as long as you keep blogging. 🙂

    So glad you liked it! Funny, I've never thought of Davies as a particularly religious writer, even though religion crops up in his books quite a bit. That is, he writes a lot about *churches* but he doesn't seem particularly *spiritual*. And I think one of his main themes is that there isn't really that much difference between Christianity and the Arabian Nights.

    Any thoughts on comparing it to Owen Meany?


  3. Julie!! YAY!! (I'm always happy when you make an appearance.)

    I think you're right about the distinction between religious and spiritual, and yeah, lots of comparisons to Owen Meany. (It's been AGES since I've read that one; I should give it a good reread.) I would disagree, though about him being spiritual. Maybe philosophical rather than spiritual? I don't know, exactly, but it felt *spiritual* to me (though maybe not religious, per se.)


  4. Hmmm, I think I'm due for a re-read! I guess when I said he's not spiritual I was thinking of Robertson Davies in general, not specifically the character of Dunstan. Dunstan is probably the most “religious” of any of his characters, even though one of the protagonists in the Cornish trilogy is actually a priest. But even Dunstan is so… pragmatic?… that he just doesn't seem religious to me, even though he's obsessed with saints and all.

    Amanda's comment about “the religious stuff” took me by surprise because in my opinion it just all blends together very seamlessly and I've never thought of this novel has having “religious stuff” in it. It's just a great story on so many levels.

    I'm rambling, sorry…


  5. Not rambling, Julie. I am curious to read more of his work (it may have to wait until January, though), and to see how it all plays out. And yes, while Dunstan was pragmatic, I still think there's a religious/moral/spiritual aspect to it all. Or at least I felt it. Maybe that's part of the brilliance?

    And, yes, re Amanda's comment, the religious “stuff” didn't stand out. It's just what I picked up on.


  6. I loved the religious stuff too. I wish I had read the conversations with the Jesuit priest with a highlighter. I think it was so interesting how Dunny was so spiritual and his life's work was about saints, and yet I didn't see him as a particularly religious person.


  7. How funny–this is our current Read To Me book! My husband's reading it to me, approx. a chapter a night. It's going to be a while before we finish, I know; I'm sure we'll read the trilogy straight through.


  8. I honestly could barely stand this book! I was required to read it for a radio show called Young Canada Reads, and I had so much trouble getting through it. I'm not sure why I hated it so much while everybody seems to love it, but to me it just fell flat and didn't draw me in to any degree.


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