Weaving together five heartbreaking stories, Bill Gaston transforms the cruelty of life into something not only beautiful but heartwarming.
A recently divorced, early retiree accidentally burns down his house on the day he pays off the mortgage, only to discover that for the first time in his life he’s forgotten to pay a bill: his insurance premium. An old friend of his, a middle-aged musician, prepares for her suicide to end the pain of esophageal cancer. Her father, who left his family to study Buddhism in Tibet, ends his days in a Toronto facility for Alzheimer’s patients. The three are tied together not only by their bonds of affection, but by a book called The World, written by the old man in his youth. The book, possibly biographical, tells the story of a historian who unearths a cache of letters, written in Chinese, in an abandoned leper colony off the coast of Victoria. He and the young Chinese translator fall in love, only to betray each other in the cruellest way possible, each violating what the other reveres most.
he night before his world went up in flames, Stuart Price sat reading an article in National Geographic about Egypt’s mummified animals—shrews to gazelles to longhorn cattle with statuary built to encase them. Most of all, the Egyptians mummified pet cats. Tensing imperceptibly in his easy chair, Stuart read how, in 1888, treasure hunters uncovered many thousands of mummified cats, layered twenty or thirty deep. Deemed worthless except as fertilizer, these dry-husk cats were piled to the gunnels and shipped to England, where they were plowed into English farmland.
The article had an odd effect on Stuart. What struck him more than its wild facts was the simpler fact that he had never heard of this. How was it possible?
As he sat in his scavenged chair, reading from a borrowed magazine, he was most made to feel boring. Not bored— boring. An affront to life out there, a life from which sprang such colourful stories. He saw how his own life had narrowed, and in the past five years ridiculously. It might look like asceticism but it just wasn’t. His simplicity had no purpose other than thrift. After two decades as shop teacher at Lambrick Park High, at age fifty-one, a year behind schedule, he’d retired and, today, paid off his house. Since the divorce he had dedicated his life to exactly those two things—pay off mortgage, retire—going so far as to borrow magazines, drive a thirty-three-year-old Datsun, and neither eat out nor order in. So what—Stuart considered with feet up on the coffee table he’d built himself—what did this sphincter-like frugality mean in a world where mummified, three-thousand-year-old cats were packed in schooners, shipped to England, dug in with the peas and carrots, and no one found it remarkable enough to talk about endlessly or put into history books?
As colourful as all this was, Stuart Price wouldn’t recall the article or these thoughts until weeks later, when he would wonder if he’d cursed himself by...
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“Oh, is this a book! What stories, what writing, what feeling, what depth, what humour. What layers, digging down to China and back again, driving across the country in a dying Datsun, planning your own funeral feast with dishes like Prawns Afterlife. And behind it all – or rather, surrounding it – a blanket of spirituality that both terrifies and soothes. The World is paradoxical; The World is unique.”
— The Globe And Mail
“The World is perhaps Bill Gaston’s greatest work, and Bill Gaston is one of our greatest writers.”
—David Adams Richards