The year is 1936 and the Clarey family of Halifax, Nova Scotia is, by all accounts, a typical family. The father, Charles is the latest owner of Clarey Paint and Glass, a business started by his grandfather. Charles and Mary Clarey live in a house with their children Edith (Edie) and Mel. Their oldest, Gus is away at a seminary college in Antigonish. Mel’s best friend Lawrence (Lawrie) Shine lives across the street. The Spanish Boy opens with Mel, Lawrie and Edie all running to the Halifax waterfront to get a glimpse of the German airship The Hindenburg. It is a moment, frozen in time that resonates throughout their lives. They are all teenagers living in the pre-war innocence that is North America in the inter-war years. However, world events, a new Clarey employee (“the Spanish Boy”) and Edie’s disappearance will soon end all that, resulting in a lifetime of grief that is carried by all, in various ways for the next 67 years:
“Her (Edie’s) presence had bound them together. Her absence rendered them solitary creatures, unable any longer to find comfort in each other’s company; and yet afraid to remain apart and lose the last vestige of her.”
The Spanish Boy subtly draws you in by acquainting the reader with the routine of life in 1936 Halifax, and the regular mundaneness of existence in a carefree world (in Canada, at any rate). However, Ms Reardon soon takes us into the lives and thoughts of the various characters, such as Theresa, the Clarey family’s live-in housekeeper, the sole survivor of her house when the Halifax Explosion happened in 1917, claiming the life of her two children whose bodies were never found and rendered Theresa physically and emotionally scarred. There is 18-year-old Edie, finished high school and put to work by her father answering the phone in the family business. Her father has bribed her to do this job by giving her a new bicycle, for it saves him from paying out a full wage in these difficult times. Edie is naively adventurous and usually gets her own way. Then there is Micah Gessen (aka Michael Green) a Jew from Toronto appears in Halifax looking for a job so he can purchase passage on a ship to get to Spain where he wants to fight in the revolution. The strangely handsome Micah turns Edie’s head and she too wants to go to Spain with Micah, (who doesn’t want her tagging along) although she has no idea of what awaits her or what she will do once she gets there. She just wants adventure.
An amazing and captivating read, The Spanish Boy came recommended to me by Binnie Brennan, to whom Ms Reardon credits in her acknowledgements for her guidance. Indeed, Mel’s final years in the Shorefront Residences nursing home evoked memories of Ms Brennan’s 2009 novella Harbour View, about life inside a small Halifax nursing home from both the resident’s point of view as well as the staff’s. Both books are highly sensitive to the plight of our elderly family members, who are practically forgotten in the cloistered environment they have been relegated to.
I highly recommend The Spanish Boy. It has mystery, mirth, grief and an overreaching sense of pathos that will leave you pondering the seemingly insignificant occurrences that affected the Clarey family over the years (the Hindenburg, a bicycle, a belt, a stolen hat, missed opportunities, etc.) and it may well cause you to reflect back on your own experiences as well. CanLit at its best, it is a certain entry on the “Very Best” Book Award longlist for 2017.