Is it just me or is Audrey Thomas one of Canada’s most underrated writers? She’s won numerous prizes for her works over the years, and yet she doesn’t seem to garner the same sort of attention and conversation as Carol Shields or Elizabeth Hay. Her new novel, Local Customs, is a fabulous and fascinating true tale that I read in one sitting.
Local Customs is set in the mid-1800s, mostly in what is now Ghana, Africa. It recounts one imagining of the true story of Governor George McLean and his poet wife Lettie Landon. Told from multiple perspectives, we know almost from the first page that Lettie dies unexpectedly in Africa. Hints (including voodoo) at how and why she dies is enticingly dangled before the reader as the circumstances are slowly revealed.
Thomas tells her tale brilliantly. It is apparently one she has been thinking about for 40 years. The characters are so crisply drawn that they jump off the page. She often employs a technique where various characters recount the same event but from their perspective. This wonderfully illustrates their conceits, prejudices and inner thoughts. I have not had this much fun reading a novel in a long time.
Who would like this book? I think Local Customs would make an ideal book club book. There is so much to talk about in terms of characters, styling and writing technique, but additionally the historical context of the novel is primed to spark debate. The story is significantly set shortly after the slave trade in what is now Ghana is abolished, but colonialism and missionary influences continue to render the locals bound in philosophical shackles. The plight of an independent woman striving to support herself and members of her family at the beginning of the Victorian Era is another important discussion point. For such a short novel – just over 200 pages – there is so much packed in. It is truly an unforgettable story.
I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.