May 20, 2007

The Halifax Connection by Marie Jakober - review

There is, no doubt, a sterling thriller to be made surrounding Canadian involvement in the American Civil War. Warfare has often served as a fertile ground for rousing tales of cloak-and-dagger espionage, and Canada’s heretofore-unheralded background role in the ultimate creation of the United States seems an ideal launching point for such a yarn.

Canadian author Marie Jakober certainly would appear to have the chops for such an undertaking. A past winner of the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for her novel Only Call Us Faithful, Jakober has published seven well-received novels of historical/fantastic fiction, and deserves kudos for unearthing a little-discussed area of Canadian history for fictional dissection.

Unfortunately, Jakober cannot decide what she wants her novel The Halifax Connection to be, and the resulting plodding narrative does the subject matter a disservice.

Erryn Shaw is a lanky English expatriate living in Halifax, an unemployed theatre owner who, in the words of his handler, is “a fish to whom the whole world is water…[and] the best God damn natural spy I’ve ever seen.”

Recruited for his talents at blending in, Erryn is charged with infiltrating the Grey Tories; “Canadians who actively supported the Southern cause; or, in plainer words, Confederate agents.” Such men scheme to involve England in a war against the United States, a conspiracy that would unavoidably result in England backing the Confederate cause.

There is an obvious and important modern-day analogy brewing in The Halifax Connection, as 19th century Canada flirts with involvement in a war between two parties it holds no allegiance to. Yet despite the possibilities for intrigue inherent in a war that would result in a “little ribbon of colonies crushed between two empires, precious to neither, sacrificed by both,” Jakober squanders the opportunity with a romantic sub-plot as obvious as it is unnecessary.

Shaw’s protracted dalliance with Sylvie, a working-class woman with a tragic past, is meant to illustrate the personal compromises Erryn must undertake to fulfill his mission, yet bleeds the story dry of any true tension. Purple descriptions of “kisses to burn up all the fogs of the North Atlantic” distract from the plot, lending undue emphasis on the least interesting storyline.

The major problem with The Halifax Connection then comes from the uneven pairing of these two elements. The far more attention-grabbing secret agent storyline suffers from its episodic structure, while the admittedly strong characters of Erryn and Sylvie are stuck serving a by-the-numbers romance.

There is a fascinating tale to be told in the Canadian angle of the American Civil War, but The Halifax Connection is not that tale. Jakober should have trusted the material to be strong enough on its own.

Originally printed in The Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, May 20, 2007.

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