More, by Austin Clarke (HarperCollins)

 Talk about an apt title. The opening paragraph of Austin Clarke’s latest novel (following his recent, excellent The Polished Hoe) is three-and-a-half pages long. The first sentence is three-and-a-half pages long. Reader, take a deep breath. Fortunately, there are pauses on the way. George Orwell wrote an entire novel without a single semicolon; Austin Clarke couldn’t get by without them. Semicolons have many uses (they can, for example, juxtapose independent, contrasting statements, as in the previous sentence). In literature, we associate their use with a distinctive, magisterial style and, arguably, affectedness: Samuel Johnson; Jane Austen; Henry James; Marcel Proust; Virginia Woolf. (They’re also handy for separating items in a list.) In Clarke’s opening pages, this little mark pulls the reader powerfully and deeply into the consciousness of the novel’s central character, Idora Morrison, a Caribbean immigrant living alone in a basement flat in Toronto.

And there, for much of the novel, we remain, inside her consciousness, inside the flat. Luckily for us her consciousness roams widely beyond these four walls, as she agonizes over the loss of her son, BJ, to a criminal gang – back to her homeland of Barbados, back to her useless husband’s desertion, and to the varied perils of living alone in a cold, alienating city. Idora’s intense loneliness is offset somewhat by her ties to other black immigrants loosely connected through work, cheap accommodation arrangements, music, and religion. These ties offer some human warmth, a diluted sense of belonging: “I am a Canadian,” she says at one point. Such a statement, which no one who was not an immigrant would feel the need to declare, underscores her sense of displacement.

The reader perceives early in the narrative that there will be no happy ending here, yet the final pages are oddly redemptive: the last word, as in Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy in Ulysses – a novel that More in some ways resembles – is “yes”.

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Tim Tweets