Fiction - paperback; Harper Perennial Canada; 312 pages; 2012.
Lauren B. Davis is a Canadian writer who lives in the United States. Our Daily Bread, her fifth title, was inspired by events surrounding the Goler Clan in Novia Scotia, some of whom were convicted for sexual abuse and incest in the 1980s.
A fictional god-fearing town
The story is set in the fictional bible-thumping town of Gideon, which is dominated by god-fearing folk who attend the Church of Christ Returning.
Here, Dorothy Carlisle, a widow who runs an antique store, shuns efforts by well-meaning, if slightly righteous, neighbours to attend the church. And Tom Evans, a working-class man, keeps his head down, fearful that the locals will discover he is not married to Patty, the much younger woman he lives with, and their two children — Bobby, 15, and Ivy, 10.
Meanwhile, on the nearby mountain, the poverty-stricken Erskine clan eke out an existence by growing cash crops of marijuana and burgling homes and shops in the town. Recently they have turned to "cooking" crystal meth (methamphetamine) in a caravan.
An unlikely friendship
But Albert, 22, the oldest of the huge tribe of children that make up the clan, wants nothing to do with his elders — or "The Others" as they are known — because of the way in which he and his younger siblings are treated. (There are hints of incest, but the author refrains from going into detail.) He has built his own "one-door, two-window cabin" in the woods to escape their prying eyes and spends a lot of time reading novels or cruising around Gideon in his truck.
It is during one of Albert's drives around town that he meets Tom's son, Bobby. The pair develop a close if somewhat unlikely friendship, which is kept secret from both of their families. And it is this friendship which sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in an explosive finale.
An effortless, absorbing read
From the first page of Our Daily Bread I knew I was going to love this book. The clean rhythmic prose made it an effortless read, but it was the fully realised characters, the careful plotting and the slow-building tension that made it an absorbing one.
The novel is cleverly constructed: the narrative is told in the third person throughout, but from the perspective of each of the main characters, so that we get a glimpse of their often secretive worlds and the ways in which their dreams and desires do not match reality. Davis expertly intertwines their lives and has them intersect and rub against one another, as one would expect in a small town where everyone's business is common knowledge.
The characterisation is particularly superb — Erskine skilfully gets inside the heads of everyone from a young girl to an elderly widow, from a teenage boy to a working-class man, and makes them all feel flesh-and-blood real, with flaws and emotions and personal troubles. Each person is an "outsider" — Ivy is being bullied at school, Bobby is uncommunicative and realises his parent's marriage is in trouble, Patty does not love Tom and is having an affair, Tom is desperately in love with Patty but knows that whatever he does for her is never enough, Dorothy hates the town gossips and rejects their so-called Christian values, and Albert wants to escape the clan but knows they will kill him if he dares leave.
Complex psychological tale
This combination of characters provides a complex psychological narrative. Coupled with the real sense of place that resonates off the page — of both the mountain and the town — Our Daily Bread is one of those stories that completely draws you in to another world.
It's dark, without being claustrophobic, and redemptive without being cloying. Davis writes about disturbing subjects in a sensitive manner; there's nothing sordid or sensational here and in many ways the novel's great power comes from the things she doesn't say rather than the things she does.
But while it deals with dark subject matter it is not without lighter moments. I particularly enjoyed Dorothy's wicked sense of humour revealed in her interior monologues in which she pokes fun at the town gossips and their pious ways.
"Hello Mabel." Dorothy did not rise. Oh, Lord, she prayed, please don't start her talking about the church. Dorothy was still not quite over the unsettling image of Mabel McQuaid calling out to the Lord and babbling in a rhythmic jibber-jabber she referred to as speaking-in-tongues. Mabel, in fact, had not been at all pleased yesterday when, after the service, Dorothy asked her why angels didn't just speak in a language one could understand?
Ultimately, Our Daily Bread is a story about the danger of communities collectively burying their heads in the sand, of secrets, of ignorance, of inequality, of prejudice — and of the power of unlikely friendships.
Update September 2012: This book has been longlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize, so this review now counts as part of the Shadow Giller Prize 2012. I will include links to reviews by other jury members as and when they are published.