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by Gail Bowen
McClelland & Stewart, March 2015
320 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0771024002

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This fifteenth installment of Gail Bowen's Joanne Kilbourn series, set in Regina, Saskatchewan, has a darker and edgier feel to it than some of the more recent previous entries. This time out, Joanne's wheelchair-bound husband Zack is running as a reform candidate for mayor of Regina. He entered the race with little prospect of winning but in the hope of exposing some of the corrupt dealings on the civic scene. Before he knows it, however, the race is marred by threats, violence, attack ads, and attempts at blackmail. This might seem to be more than a little excessive in a campaign for control of the mayor's seat in a medium-sized Prairie city, but there is a lot at stake for the entrenched interests, not to speak of the pattern that has been set in the larger context of current Canadian politics.

Joanne has put her every effort into Zack's campaign, but as a result of some opposition dirty tricks, she learns facts about her past life that devastate her. Nor is she the only one. Other friends also have reason to feel betrayed by those close to them. Generally speaking, both Joanne and Zack operate on the assumption that there is nothing that cannot be fixed by the judicious application of money to the problem - experts can be hired, willing workers found, a community centre can be established, as long as one's intentions are good and one's heart is in the right place. But these personal betrayals cannot be repaired easily, or perhaps at all. It is a bitter lesson for Joanne.

In some ways, the series does appear to conform to a cosy paradigm. There are rich and loving details of dress, of food, of family meals and restaurant celebrations. In 12 ROSE STREET, Bowen develops a tension between harsh fact and restorative consumption. Joanne's first instinct when confronted by malice or danger is to buy some food. Dreadful revelations are followed closely by huge and perfect meals. Soufflés are unlikely to fall, but should they, there is always a delicious alternative dish readily to hand. But there are elements that are distinctly not cosy. Certain sexual acts are graphically described. Characters, including Joanne and Zack, use the kind of coarse language that draws parental warnings on television. Joanne's high ethical standards are compromised when she develops a campaign attack-ad strategy that is not much more defensible than the opposition's.

But particularly, there is a tacit recognition that certain social evils are perhaps intractable. "The struggle continues" is the motto of the book and the note on which it ends. While a courageous declaration, it is not necessarily a hopeful one. Joanne's passionate fury at how she had been betrayed by two people she loved redeems her from the bland goodness she had tended to fall into in recent books. The kind of moneyed perfection that could easily grate in some of the earlier novels is tempered here by the stubborn intrusion of what cannot be remedied. It is this rueful acknowledgment of limitation that makes 12 ROSE STREET one of the strongest in the series to date.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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