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Book review: Distinct voice

John Miller’s sweeping family saga The Featherbed made an impressive mark. But it’s Miller’s second novel, A Sharp Intake Of Breath, that firmly establishes him as an important Canadian voice.

At first glance, Sharp Intake is about Toshy Wolfman, a Jewish boy with a cleft lip and palate growing up in 1920s Toronto. We meet Toshy’s two sisters, his communist working-class parents and his cruel speech therapist. The book has all the markings of a typical Canadian coming-of-age novel, the kind of story that gets international attention but causes snores at home.

But then we’re suddenly thrust 10 years into the future, when Toshy is in jail for stealing a famous diamond. A few pages later,Toshy is 77 years old and his gay grandnephew, Ari, is helping him move into a home. For the rest of the novel, Miller transports us back and forth between Toshy’s childhood, his 11 years in jail and his life as a senior citizen.

As the plot and themes slowly emerge, we realize nothing is as it seems. Why exactly does Toshy steal the diamond? Does it have something to do with his sister, Lil, and her friendship with famed anarchist Emma Goldman? Or is it sister Bessie’s mysterious “trouble?” Why does Toshy ask Ari to help him commit suicide in his old age?

Gradually, a slice of Canadian history turns into a whodunnit. Miller unfortunately gives a few too many clues along the way, so that some revelations aren’t the surprise they’re meant to be. There could be more fogginess, fewer resolutions.

The author is more successful at bringing the brilliant Emma Goldman back to life, and I commend his meticulous research regarding her time in Toronto and France (his work actually led to the discovery of Goldman’s French home). Miller also vividly recreates Kensington Market and Ontario’s prisons in the 1930s.

Though Miller writes primarily from Toshy’s point of view, he also uses the device of letters (similar to the diaries of his first book) to provide Lil’s perspective. This amplifies the intrigue of the plot and the complexity of the characters, which are created with admirable detail.

We meet the closed and lost Toshy, the conservative yet caring Bessie, the wild and anarchist Lil and the academic Ari. Even the smallest characters have distinct voices and mannerisms, with wonderful contradictions that keep them from becoming stereotypes. We end up loving the people in these pages, not despite, but because of their shortcomings.

Miller pens some remarkable passages about speech, silence and breath. He draws intriguing parallels between Toshy’s cleft palate and Goldman’s public speaking: “[Speech] could draw people in, move their souls, but then, depending on what you said or how you spoke, fickly, it could provoke terrible retribution or crushing exclusion.”

At its core, A Sharp Intake Of Breath is an examination of love, sacrifice and the grey area between politics and emotion. Miller asks what lengths would we go for those we love. He also beautifully demonstrates the bravery of using one’s voice.