"Leo Brent Robillard's The Road to Atlantis is a poignant, resonant tale of a family's dissolution following the death of their daughter. In gorgeous, gripping prose, he explores how individuals cope with tragedy and how grief sifts through the generations until it can finally settle and heal. This is a novel that echoes with human emotion and meaning and that deserves to be read."

-- Lauren Carter, author of Swarm

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Drift Review -- Winnipeg Free Press

Novel's pacing gives sense of living in war zone

Review by Joanne Epp, Winnipeg Free Press

CANADA'S role in the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a source of pride, giving a boost to Canadian nationalism.

Ontario writer Leo Brent Robillard's third novel, a quietly gripping story set during the early months of the war, acknowledges that pride and idealism and firmly subordinates it to a portrayal of life in the field as being at once uglier and more mundane.

Will Regan is just out of high school in Portage la Prairie when he enlists, along with his childhood friend Mason Black. A young man of uncertain convictions, he's not even certain why he enlisted. Mason, by contrast, is restless and eager to fight for the British Empire.

In South Africa they meet Claire, an Australian nurse escaping her parents' marriage plans for her; Robert, Will's silent tent-mate, escaping impending bankruptcy and a misguided marriage; and Campbell Scott, a disillusioned veteran whose hot-air balloon has been requisitioned for reconnaissance missions.

Will grows to care for each of them in different ways, while growing slowly more distant from Mason.
The title evokes the sand and dust that are ever-present in the dry South African landscape. At the same time it evokes Will himself: diffident, unambitious and -- in his own mind-- cowardly.

And the word drift brings to mind the whole contingent of soldiers sent into battle at Paardeberg. In the words of Campbell: "We are the expendables, my boy. Flotsam on the tides of history. Driftwood."

A drift is also the South African term for a ford, but Robillard doesn't explain that. Nor does he tell the reader what a kopje or a donga is.

That doesn't matter, though, because he gives the reader such a strong sensory impression of the landscape as the soldiers perceive it: the dizzying heat, and the resulting sunburn and parching thirst; the pervasive dust and sand; the sucking mud of the Modder River.

The narrative's pacing gives a sense of what it's like to live in a war zone. It's a slow momentum punctuated by sudden incidents of violence: the army's sorties against the Boer, and eventually the battle at Paardeberg, but also the beating and rape of a black boy and the consequences for Will when he witnesses the act.

Robillard's two previous novels, Leaving Wyoming and Houdini's Shadow, were also published by the Winnipeg-based literary house Turnstone Press.

Here his prose is economical without being sparse, tending toward short sentences, even sentence fragments. It's a style somewhat reminiscent of Hemingway, and it suits his subject well.

Unfortunately, he sometimes pushes it to the point of being irritating: "But that's selfish. And not entirely true. So she keeps it to herself. Because it feels better to hurt."

One might expect a novel like this to be about disillusionment, but it isn't exactly. While somewhat reluctant from the start, Will never had grand ambitions or illusions about the war, while Mason, who did, doesn't lose them.

Nevertheless, he does find that South Africa is not at all what he expected. He learns that he is capable of killing and, what's more, of deciding to kill. He also learns that, in the heat of battle, self-preservation can trump solidarity.

Will is nonplussed by his first encounter with the enemy. On the troop train he listens to Mason speak wistfully of killing Boers; then, when the men disembark, there are Dutch farm girls offering them water and cakes.

His final encounter with the surrendering Boer is just as anticlimactic. Again, he sits down to eat with them. They are not ashamed of their defeat, and neither is Will elated at the British victory. As he writes to his uncle, he had merely done his job.

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