While Canada sets up numerous scenes that teeter on the edge of the comic, they usually slide into the pathetic, macabre, or hallucinatory. The novel’s forlorn tone—of thoughts that lie too deep for tears—quite naturally grows out of the narrator’s painful recollections of a close family destroyed by a foolish act of parental desperation. Ford really excels, however, in his virtuoso command of narrative suspense. He makes us wait … Each part of Canada is superb in its own way, and, as Dell tells us, there are links between them. Nonetheless, the two halves differ as much as the Parsons twins do. While the Montana chapters might be likened to a modernized western (Indians, cattle rustling, a bank holdup), the second half presents a Southern Gothic vision of the North, complete with the depraved half-breed servant, the elegant, corrupt master, dark family secrets, good ol’ boys drinking, whoring, and hunting, and finally the awaited revenant from the buried past.
On a purely plot-hungry basis, turning the page seems the only thing to do, but — as is so often the case with the fiction of Richard Ford — what actually happens in the story feels secondary, or at best equal, to the language itself … Canada is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next … Canada is a tale of what happens when we cross certain lines and can never go back. It is an examination of the redemptive power of articulated memory, and it is a masterwork by one of our finest writers working at the top of his form.
If one is looking for a powerful through-line of suspense and drama, one will not find it in this book: instead, one must take a more scenic and meditative trip. There are novels that are contraptions, configured like cages, traps, or flypaper, to catch things and hold them. Canada is more contrary: searching and spliced open and self-interrupted by its short slicing chapters, then carried along again by a stream of brooding from a son and brother with a hundred questions and only a few answers … Ford’s language is of the cracked, open spaces and their corresponding places within. A certain musicality and alertness is required of the reader; one has to hear it instinctively and rhythmically.
In the first half of this novel, Mr. Ford does a masterly job of turning the implausible into the inexorable: He shows how this supremely ordinary couple came to be bank robbers hunted by the police; how they allowed fantasy and unhappiness and desperation to put them on the highway to prison; how they failed, time and time again, to take any of the offramps that might have allowed them — and their children — to continue with their ordinary lives and their ordinary disappointments and hope … While Mr. Ford sympathetically depicts the isolation and crushing loneliness Dell experiences, the second half of this novel lacks the organic momentum and deeply felt emotion of the preceding pages...he also clumsily tries to build suspense with lots of portentous foreshadowing of the novel’s violent climax.
Canada may strike recent fans as a departure, but it’s actually a return to the plains of his first celebrated story collection, Rock Springs … Ford can be sympathetic and yet clear-eyed about the limits of these poor, mismatched people. His delineation of their characters is insistent without seeming relentless, moving further and further into the conflicted desires and misimpressions that motivate them … Always a careful craftsman, Ford has polished the plainspoken lines of Canada to an arresting sheen. He’s working somewhere between Marilynne Robinson (without the theology) and Cormac McCarthy (without the gore). The wisdom he offers throughout these pages can be heard in the hushed silence that follows this harrowing tale.
Though Canada has every bit of its predecessors’ ambition, Ford works here from a different part of his sensibility. Put simply, he writes differently about the American West than he does about the East … The novel isn’t perfect, and the bit of back-story that Ford uses to move the book toward its climax seems mishandled, a MacGuffin that’s too busy for its own good. But no matter; plot has never been what his work is really about. Canada is Richard Ford’s best book since Independence Day, and despite its robbery and killings it too depends on its voice, a voice oddly calm and marked by the spare grandeur of its landscape.
[Ford] writes with deliberate flatness, eschewing stylistic flourishes – except when describing North American landscapes – so that Dell speaks in the cadences of a permanently damaged spirit. Listening to him, sentence by careful sentence, is like watching a car-crash survivor making his way along a hospital corridor, step by careful step. His voice, at once muffled and clear, is remarkably resonant, and devastating in its directness … Canada is a superlatively good book, richly imagined and beautifully fashioned. Although it is too early to do so, one is tempted to acclaim it a masterpiece. It catches movingly the grinding loneliness at the heart of American life – of life anywhere.
If an author's duty is to make the improbable seem probable, even while endowing his story with symbolic meanings, Ford has clearly failed the test. We believe neither events nor relationships. Instead, we seem knee-deep in some bizarre Richard Ford self-parody, some fictional never-never land where nothing makes sense … If the book's first half is preposterous, the second manages to be more credible, while pervaded by mystery…Canada leaves us groping for answers.
Richard Ford has again crafted what his readers know to expect: characters down on their luck yet struggling toward approximations of the American dream. Once again, wide-open spaces of the West play a major role as 66-year-old Dell Parsons reminisces on the pivotal year of his childhood in Montana and Saskatchewan … The bulk of the narrative is so full of expansive descriptions and repeated mulling over how things might have gone differently or better if only this or that had or hadn't happened, that the opening works hard to propel the story … In a beautiful, bittersweet ending, the story abruptly jumps to the present. Intervening years are mostly missing. They're not important. The empty land, the failed family, Dell's determination in the face of it all, justify this cheerless novel in ways Ford has perfected.
The durable order of family life disappears entirely in the second half of a book that transports Dell from the simple but familiar home he shared with his parents and sister in Great Falls, Mont., to a pair of desolate Saskatchewan prairie towns — one as dreary as the next … Ford excels on a canvas that lends itself to sparse, weighted dialogue and observation. Tempered by fear and violence, his Canadian outback is a place where nothing seemed ‘reasonable or logical, based on what anyone would believe they knew about the world’ … Winsome, complex and gritty, Dell represents the quintessential voice of one of the best American novelists of our time.
Canada is about the aftermath of a moment of violence on a normal life, told by a man 50 years distant from the events that upended his existence. It’s a deliberately paced novel that takes its time getting where it’s going, but the author is very sure of his destination … Ford takes a low-key approach to even the most violent episodes, and his writing in Canada is matter-of-fact in its exactness. He writes the way one of his characters paints, to the befuddlement of the teenage Dell … It stands as one of the most memorably heartbreaking novels of the year.
Canada is a marvelous story told in the voice of 15-year-old Dell Parsons about his befuddled family: his twin sister, Berner, and his socially awkward, almost farcically tragic parents – father Bev and mother Neeva – two of the least likely bank robbers one could ever hope to encounter … Ford's masterful unveiling of the narrative not only gives us Dell's view on his sad family (where ‘no one had access to common sense,’ as he tells us), but increases the tension as pages are turned … Canada is a masterpiece of a story with rich language and dialogue filled with suspense, bleakness, human frailties and flaws, and a little bit of hope seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy whose emotions seem often aligned with the desolate landscape of its setting.
What looks like a safe, predictable life suddenly turns into disaster. It’s a plot that has powered countless novels, and Richard Ford makes it work in Canada, but not suddenly. His tale moves ever so slowly and deliberately. That’s the strength and the weakness of Ford’s story about a 15-year-old boy, Dell Parsons … Dell narrates the story from the perspective of a man in his 60s who rose above the troubles that swamped his youth. How he did so is something Ford barely mentions, a rare instance of the author being less than forthcoming about all possible details.
Despite its title, the novel is as essentially all-American as Independence Day. Typically for Ford, the focus is as much on the perspective (and limitations) of its protagonist as it is on the issues that the narrative addresses … Dell’s perspective may well be singular and skewed, but it’s articulate without being particularly perceptive or reflective. And it’s the only one we have.