Monday, April 02, 2007

A review that appeared in the Globe & Mail of David Helwig's Saltsea, for those of you who missed it.

If you're fond of sand dunes and Saltsea air
By David Helwig
Biblioasis, 214 pages, $28.95

What better setting for a novel than a hotel? What better place to find a wide range of characters who have been arbitrarily thrown together? One thinks of such absorbing and entertaining past novels as The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving, or Hotel Honolulu, by Paul Theroux (to say nothing of the old Arthur Hailey bestseller, Hotel).

David Helwig's Saltsea takes place in a summer vacation spot called the Saltsea Inn, on the coast of Prince Edward Island (which former Ontarian Helwig now calls home). Having only last year published The Names of Things, a lively memoir of his life in CanLit, Helwig comes right back with a novel that may be his finest.

The inn was once the summer residence of New York millionaire Arthur Melcot. It ceased to be a family retreat after Arthur's granddaughter Barbara used it for a time as a hippy commune. Saltsea sat empty for years, but has since been bought by retired civil servant Lawrence (Log) Gardiner and his wife Janet. They have turned it into a pleasant inn that boasts good food and a relaxing beach.

The novel spans a few summer days as people come and go, people such as:

Monica, who brings her two little boys and worries about what her husband is up to back in Toronto.

Meta, an earnest lesbian archeologist from Montreal, who sets up a dig on the Saltsea beach, hoping to find proof of visits by ancient Norsemen. She's accompanied by her provocative young friend Adrienne, who plays on both sides of the street, as they say.

America and James Onley, attractive young New York newlyweds on their honeymoon. The wealthy would-be actress America happens to be the great-granddaughter of the former owner and the daughter of one-time hippy Barbara.

Lizzie McKellan, recently widowed; she's come here before with her husband and she's longing for companionship: "Desire came on her as a powerful, strange half-nauseous ache. She was afraid that one of these days she would discover herself making overtures to a plumber or telephone repairman."

An elderly man known simply as The Professor, who is scouting the area for a summer house; he's haunted by strange dreams and by his wife, who controls his actions even though she stayed in Toronto.

Overweight widows Marg and Doris, happily trying to videotape everybody.

Then there is America's mother, Barbara, who's become a drunk; she arrives to try to reclaim some of the good memories of her hippy youth. Also onto the scene comes Lucas, handsome piano-playing son of the current owners. You know it won't be long before he makes a move on lovely America.

Besides these and other guests, there is Palmer McVeigh, who's been doing odd jobs around the inn since it was a private residence. He spends much of his spare time playing poker with his imaginary friend Adolfo. When he picks up the Onleys at the airport, America thinks he looks like George Burns.

There's the local minister, Father Bob Watkins, who may not be as innocent as he looks. And there's the hotel staff, headed by Peeters, the live-in cook who's raising pheasants in cages out back for future special dinners; with his brooding sous-chef Darren, and three waitresses: lazy Kayleen, crazy Jasmyn and the perky and hard-working Robin, who has aspirations of being a filmmaker.

Helwig does a remarkable job of developing every one of these characters, and you hate to see any of them leave. As they meet and observe one another, the encounters are conveyed through crisp dialogue and just enough description.

Helwig is equally effective when he brings everybody together -- for dinner in the Saltsea dining room, or at a concert, where America and Lucas perform and The Professor recites poetry. And he builds suspense around Meta's excavation: exactly what has she dug up, both literally and figuratively?

Even Palmer McVeigh's dog has personality: "The dog gave him a look as if he'd heard enough stupid human remarks and would appreciate it if Palmer would just be quiet."

As a reader, you feel as if you've gone to this quaint place for a vacation and met all these intriguing people, and you have the privilege of knowing what they think about themselves and each other. Helwig's considerable accomplishment is that he makes you care about all of them. Since he gives you lots to laugh about, as well as some insight into the past and some mystery, you come away from Saltsea feeling that it was the best damned vacation you've had in a long while.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist who has been following Helwig's work since reviewing two of the four books called The Kingston Novels in the early 1980s.

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