Award-winning Newfoundland author Paul Bowdring’s fourth book, Mister Nightingale (2016, Vagrant Press) is an introspective novel, one requiring some patience on behalf of the reader before being gently absorbed into James Nightingale’s world. Mister Nightingale, while being written by Mr Bowdring, is penned as if the fictional character James Nightingale (who is also an author) has written it, adding a high level of startling authenticity to a novel that reads more like a memoir. By the end of the book, James will become quite real to you, and you’ll be forgiven if you think he wrote Mister Nightingale instead of Paul Bowdring.
Back Home in Newfoundland; Other Musings
James Nightingale is a self-described non-mainstream writer (“I’m not mainstream. I’ll never be mainstream. More….. sidestream…tributary.”) who, after living and writing in Toronto for 30 years, has returned to Newfoundland to accept an honorary degree, visit with his father (who has dementia), see his daughter Cecilia (who is attending university there) and attend the launch of the re-release of his first novel. Interspersed on this trip back home are visits with his sister Sheila, his editor (for whom he is working on proofs, but is way behind the deadlines), a television interview, and spending time with his good friends Kevin (the poet) and Grim (the actor). James is also separated from his wife Alicia, who is a professional violist living and teaching in Toronto.
As this book is written in the first person, the reader gets to know James and those closest to him quite well as he travels with him through the present and the past via mental side trips and various musings along the way. For example, on his way to the television studio to do an interview, James takes a hiking trail that leads around a small pond. There, he is startled by the loud screech of a squirrel. James is pretty sure that there weren’t any such creatures in St. John’s when he lived here before. However, this little incident sets his mind wandering back to the squirrels in Toronto’s parks, then, distractedly, to a fact he had read somewhere that the testicles of a male squirrel make up more than 2 percent of its body weight, which if extrapolated to a 175 pound male, would mean gonads weighing four pounds. The book is full of such stream-of-consciousness meanderings (“sidestreams”?), some amusing, but usually observational and contemplative in nature, although James never digresses far from the main subject of the chapter. Interestingly, I found each chapter to be a short story unto itself. You could almost pick this book up, open it to any of its 25 titled chapters and begin reading it without knowing the complete story. Nevertheless, each chapter-story has enough of a thread running through it to keep it part of the whole journey of reading Mister Nightingale.
Chapter 18, entitled “A Life Unlived” was one of my favourite ones to read and is a good example of a complete story within a chapter. James begins by asking the reader:
“Can one really talk about unlived lives? I don’t mean a life that was cut short before it really began….I mean the notion that our life could have been different, completely different, if only…..As if our life were a fiction we were inventing as we went along, but at some point lost the artistic will to continue. It happens.”
He then continues to explore this delicate thought and relates it to an elderly widow whom he met that day, living just down the street, continually tending her flower gardens, but who has started writing a book and asks for James’ assistance. The title she has chosen is A Life Unlived since she devoted her whole life to her marriage. “It took my life away,” she tells James. Later, James is to encounter one of his own unlived lives in the form of a former girlfriend he chances to meet in a park.
To sum up, this book really resonated with me, and I enjoyed every aspect of it. From its French flaps (but oddly chosen cover art with gothic horror overtones) to the paper used and the typeface chosen, it had a feel of quality and richness to it, even without having read a page of it, not something you would expect from a softcover publication. I enjoyed its pace, its cadence if you will. Never rushed, never too many or too few words used. Mister Nightingale is filled with literary and musical references, from Chekov to Conrad, from Mahler to Leonard Cohen. I think that Mr Bowdring has come quite close to composing a story that flows like a concerto; every chapter a variation of the theme, yet each worthy of standing on its own merits. Moreover, James Nightingale is a likeable character, rarely cynical, never bluff. One even feels empathy for him at times, such as when he finds himself sitting alone at a book signing table in the back of a big-box bookstore, while a higher profile (i.e. sports celebrity) gets a table at the front and has his presence regularly announced over the store’s PA.
Intelligent, innovative writing and realistic characters combine to make Mister Nightingale a stimulating read. For these reasons, I am adding Mister Nightingale to my 2016 long list of “The Very Best” Awards.