Toronto Star raves about Stunt

By Patricia Robertson
Toronto Star
April 20, 2008

Shipwrecked in magic Parkdale

A local playwright has an entertaining ball with a rich kingdom around the King car

April 20, 2008

Patricia Robertson

Claudia Dey's magical and sensuous first novel, Stunt, is a triumphant launch to the award-winning playwright's literary career. Dey has produced a remarkable piece of magic realism.

Stunt is cleverly set in an ordinary yet very engaging down-at-the-heel Parkdale community. The neighbourhood proves to be a rich source of characters, including demonic twins straight out of a Diane Arbus portrait who set house fires in the middle of the night. If you love Arbus's raw and searing black-and-white photos, you'll appreciate the squalid yet sensitive bohemians who enliven the pages of Stunt.

The bulk of the magical story centres on the Wes Anderson-like Ledoux family and their two eccentric daughters, Eugenia and Immaculata. Mother Mink is a narcissistic actress and father Sheb a self-absorbed painter who collects birth announcements. The word 'Stunt' is a play on Sheb's circus family roots and his nickname for his favourite daughter, Eugenia.

This peculiar family lives on a street filled with such characters as the homeless man who 'wears his sleeping bag for a scarf.' No one talks about The Food Network, kitchen renovations or Tuscany.

This surrealist coming-of-age novel -- a shot of Catcher in the Rye with a One Hundred Years of Solitude chaser -- is the perfect vehicle for Dey's caustic wit and trenchant observations. Perhaps it's the playwright in her, but Dey's powers of description are formidable. It's as if poet Anne Carson and satirist Mordecai Richler accidentally collided at a drunken PEN fundraiser to produce a mischievous, magical and observant girl-child.

Dey's description of the Gardiner Expressway reveals her dexterous ability:

'We live in Parkdale,' says Eugenia, the story's young narrator, 'a village in the west end of the city of Toronto, made up of Victorian mansions that used to border the lake. Women with parasols and bathing suits down to their calves, women with consumption, walked the beach, Sunnyside beach.

'Now the highway sits on top of us, a beleaguered crown, turning Parkdale into a tired beauty queen. Feathers in her hair. Crinolines in a knot. She is grand. She is slumped. She is a rooming house with clapboard siding, transoms, cornices and turrets. Her voice is parched and playful. She is all invitation. She will take you in when nobody else will. The sun: her chandelier, her tarnished medal for bravery.'

According to Eugenia, everyone in Parkdale appears 'shipwrecked.' Indeed. When I lived in Parkdale as a grad student, my favourite activity was eavesdropping on the King streetcar. 'I love Parkdale in the springtime,' enthused the lady behind me to her companion one April afternoon. 'It really comes to life 'cause that's when everyone is released from jail.'

Stunt is set in the early 1980s and revolves around the fallout from father Sheb's decision to quit his family. This dramatic act of abandonment leaves Eugenia with some unanswered questions. Will he come to get her? Should she go looking for him?

It's not long before Eugenia's mother, Mink, quits the scene, too, and the girls are left to fend for themselves.

Eugenia's desperate quest for her father turns the novel into a picaresque journey with a familiar theme: If our own roguish family chooses to reject us, where do we find love and comfort in an unfamiliar and hostile world?

After Mink's departure, the girls mysteriously wake up as young women of 18, sell the family house and strike out on their own. It's Eugenia's heroic task to find her missing dad, shake off the crazy neighbourhood and go on a walk-about with beautiful sister Immaculata, who dresses exclusively in white, like Emily Dickinson. A few blocks into their quest the pretty sister falls in love and Eugenia presses on alone.

Stunt is rich with poetic detail, alive with original characters, and the cheeky protagonist will win you over in the first paragraph. Parkdale may be a 'tired beauty queen,' but Dey has proven there's still some life in the old girl yet.

Patricia Robertson is a Saskatchewan freelance journalist.

Related Content
Related Contributors: 
Related Titles: