on Jan. 29, 2013 :
Grant J. Venables' "the meaning" is a work about many familiar themes: love (familial and romantic), travel, religion, bigotry, illness, education, self-discovery, and adulthood. Yet, in the "compact universe" of Salmon City, British Columbia, these simple concepts combine and overlap in an incredibly complex way. We follow our protagonist, John, from his high school graduation through his university life and early career, as he is drawn back to the relationships of his hometown from which he cannot escape. The straightforward plot of this fantastic novel leaves space for meditation on the complexity of our relationships, even in the simplest places.
In his search for the titular "meaning," John sets off on a journey that takes him from the heights of the Rockies to the balmy jungles along the Mekong to a dusty bookstore in Paris. Yet, the glittering lights of Los Angeles, the dreadful suffering of Vancouver's open-air drug market, and the frenzied and arousing chaos of Bangkok are no match for the sleepy Shop Rite, the high school up on the hill, and placid lake of Salmon City. The lack of one simple insight that renders the universe understandable drives John forward to his next port-of-call, but always brings him back to the familiarity of his hometown.
Some of Venables' vivid characters fade into the dull banality of everyday life, only to emerge back into John's life with a shocking revelation or behavior. Both of his parents cheat death, changing them in profound ways. And, above all, the most perplexing and interesting character in the novel is Mary, a woman incapable of returning John's unwavering love. Her development defies all convention, and the inaccessible layers of her psyche challenge many things John has always taken for granted. As John makes peace with Salmon City, a character in her own right, his tireless quest to understand of Mary drives him further from discovering a single and simple meaning.
In the simplest surroundings, John confronts the most complicated challenges. As such, at its core, this novel is less about John finding a discrete meaning, but more about his coming to a workable understanding. The overlapping desires and beliefs of the residents of Salmon City defy distance and force John to consider whether it is even possible to make sense of his origins. Readers will relate to the simple pleasures of a high school graduation, of reuniting with friends, and with returning to a childhood home. But, perhaps readers will also relate to the associated complexity of these familiar experiences. After reading "the meaning," it is unlikely that we will find what the title promises. Instead, we may ask if there are many meanings or none at all.
(reviewed 50 days after purchase)