The title of Toronto writer Kyo Maclear’s second novel provides many clues as to what’s between the covers: over the course of the story, love strays, lovers stray, and strays are loved. These are just a few facets of this beautiful, sensitive, multi-layered novel.
None of the main characters has what might be considered a conventional family. The novel opens in 2002, when Marcel agrees to look after 11-year-old Iris. The girl is the daughter of Marcel’s oldest friend, Kiyomi, a woman he has loved for decades. Marcel was raised by Oliver, a war correspondent, who spirited the boy off to Saigon as the Vietnam War was beginning its convulsions. Oliver, orphaned during the Second World War, was raised by foster parents. Iris is the result of artificial insemination and will never know her father. And Marcel spent much of his childhood longing for his mother, who left when he was a baby.
Notions of parenthood are paramount: when adults take on the job of raising children, the children often outdo them in maturity. But children are unable to maintain such fortitude forever, and they frequently suffer because of their caregivers’ mistakes. Maclear is utterly frank in this regard, but also shows that, though adults may make lousy decisions, their children still love them.
Maclear further complicates matters for her characters by introducing the challenge of mixed-race parentage. Marcel has a white mother and an African father. The 1960s England he grows up in is not the multicultural mosaic of Canada today, but a place in which people who did not look English were considered foreigners (this still happens). As a result, he is teased and bullied as a child. Iris, also of mixed background, is being raised in contemporary New York, and Marcel is concerned about her confidence and sense of self.
Moving back and forth in time and place, the author skilfully manages to let the young Marcel relate his story while allowing the adult reader to see what he does not. And when Marcel goes to Vietnam with Oliver, the narrative is so richly embued with sensory detail that the lives of the characters fairly lift off the page.
Maclear has created an emotionally challenging examination of family, race, and, above all, love. I was so moved while reading Stray Love, I went right back and read it again.