by Roberston Davies
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.