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Stanley Park

Reviewed: April 29, 2008
By: Timothy Taylor
Publisher: Vintage Canada
424 pages, $21.00

It’s fair to warn you that reading this book will familiarize you with more cooking terms than you ever wanted to know, unless you happen to have an interest in such things. I haven’t felt quite this swamped since I read Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale way back when and I found myself getting both stirred and shaken by a card game I knew nothing about.

Apparently the makers of the film thought Baccarat Chemin de Fe too esoteric for modern audiences and changed the game to poker to cash in on the current fad.

Stanley Park may also make you wonder just what goes on behind the order counter. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

This is the story of Jeremy Papier, a young chef who has a dream. After his apprenticeship and training in France. Jeremy discovered his dream, which was to open a moderate sized restaurant and feature dishes mostly prepared from local ingredients. Together he and his partner, Jules, have a good deal of success, as far as the aesthetics of the things are concerned, but Jeremy has no head at all for money, and manages to get himself involved in what became a credit card kiting scheme and run up a great deal of debt.

Was this inevitable given that the restaurant was called The Monkey’s Paw, which is, of course, the name of a rather famous story in which wishes come true, but at a terrible price?

Among Jeremy’s circle of acquaintances is Dante Beale, an entrepreneur who runs a chain of coffee shops under the trademark of, what else, the Inferno. Living up to his name (which has to be a play on Beelzebub) Dante comes to Jeremy’s rescue and bails him out, but the cost to his soul and his relationship with Jules is quite tremendous and Jeremy has to decide what to do about all of that.

None of this is where the book gets its name. Jeremy’s father more or less lives in Stanley Park, camping out and living with the homeless people who dwell in the hidden places there. It’s not that Professor Papier has no choice. No, he’s a very eccentric anthropologist and he’s engaged in some participant observation amongst the squatters, learning their ways, studying and practising their methods of survival, and recording their folklore.

Jeremy tends to think he’s gone native, and perhaps he’s not too far wrong about that. Both father and son have their obsessions and are more alike that either of them cares to realize. They haven’t communicated well since the death of Jeremy’s mother some years earlier, but all that is about to change. Indeed, the opening scene of the novel is of their first regular meeting at Lost Lagoon and there are many more after that.

Part of the Professor’s study has to do with the urban folklore surrounding two small children, two boys, whose skeletons were found in the park, covered by a woman's fur coat. This part of the novel s based on a the real life Babes in the Woods murders. The bodies were uncovered in 1953 and the mystery has never been solved. One of the reasons seems to be that they were initially though to be a boy and a girl, though testing later revealed otherwise.

You can read a brief account of this case on a number of websites, but the one that seems to apply to the book best is a reading club site from the Carnegie Community Centre in downtown Vancouver: http://carnegie.vcn.bc.ca/index.pl/readingclub. I didn’t look at any of it until after I’d read the book. It was interesting to see how Taylor wove the actual story into his novel. Apparently he’d been going to make up something similar for the book and stumbled across this real murder while researching Stanley Park.

Given Jeremy’s predilection for becoming fixating on things and people it came as no surprise to me when he developed an obsession with the culinary habits of the park’s denizens, as introduced to him by his father. It’s a hunter-gatherer society in there, and the park is just crammed with birds and animals ready to be harvested.

How all this comes together so that Jeremy gets his life back is a trick that I will not reveal here, but it’s a nice trick. It undoes his deal with the devil and gets him back on the right track.

Taylor has enough plot threads weaving in and out of each other here that you sometimes end up annoyed when he leaves one thread dangling and moves to another, but the different parts are good enough that you feel the same way when he drops the next thread and moves on, and when that happens, you know you’re reading a good book. This one was.

Stanley Park was a Giller Prize finalist the year it came out and was winner of the 2007 Canada Reads competition on C.B.C. Radio.

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