The best magic realism aims to satirize some element of societal trauma or injustice. Think Bulgakov parodying the excesses of Stalinism in The Master and Margarita, or Márquez dissecting Latin American fatalism in One Hundred Years of Solitude. If we extend the tradition to Barry Webster’s new novel, then the target here is clearly the degradation of the Earth itself. Indeed, it may very well be the first of its kind, at least in Canada: an ecological magic-realist novel.
The Lava in My Bones is divided into elemental sections (rock, air, ice, water, etc.) and narrated from various perspectives. Sam, a somewhat indolent Canadian geologist, travels to Switzerland to attend an academic conference. While there, he meets a priapic young swinger named Franz who awakens in him a nascent homosexuality. The two begin a tryst and engage in lovemaking that gives the phrase “Did the Earth move for you?” a whole new meaning.
Meanwhile, back in Sam’s home of Labrador, his kid sister, Sue, becomes the target of bullies when she begins to perspire honey instead of sweat. Finding no solace in her religious-zealot mother, she longs to reconnect with her brother. The two finally reunite, but not before Sam gets dumped by Franz, travels to a warped version of Toronto, is institutionalized, escapes, and flees back to Labrador. Sam and Sue travel to Europe by boat to confront Franz, but their journey is complicated by their mother, who stows away on board and doggedly tries to thwart their plans.
This novel is a joyous fairytale about familial dysfunction and our connection to Mother Earth. Webster writes hallucinatory prose with zany gusto. The Lava in My Bones does have a message – something about the fires inside our bodies being connected to the fires inside the Earth – but part of the fun is untangling that moral from the images of collapsing continents, swarms of attacking bees, and oodles of gay sex.
This is an exuberantly written novel. We need more like it in this country.