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Norman Ravvin
Red Deer (Alta.), Red Deer College Press, 1991. 216pp, cloth, $24.95
ISBN 0-88995-079-2. Distributed by Raincoast Books. CIP

Grades 10 and up/Ages 15 and up

Reviewed by Joanne K. A. Peters.

Volume 20 Number 2
1992 March

Canada's urban centres arc clusters of neighbourhoods, each with its own unique and authentic character. Winnipeg's North End, Toronto's Cabbagetown, Montreal's St. Urbain - all are the stuff of which Canadian literary legend is made. Family ties and tensions are the substance of life in the urban neighborhood, and Cafe des Westens, winner of the 1990 Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism New Fiction Award, certainly evokes the contradictory issues besetting younger and older generations living in Calgary.

The Cafe des Westens is presided over by Hy Ostrovsky, restaurateur, raconteur, bartender, and unpaid psychiatrist to the many regulars who patronize his unfashionably fashionable neighbourhood diner and bar. Among those regulars are Martin Binder, widowed funeral parlour owner; Martin's son. Max, a twenty-two-year-old cab driver; and Sara, Max's know-it-all girlfriend. Although never seen at the cafe, Martin's mother and crazy cousin, Edith, are never far from Max and Martin's thoughts, and together these ladies round out the cast of the major characters on whom the story hangs.

Strangely enough, the characters never seem to hold the reader's atten­tion the way they ought to. Perhaps this is the result of Rawin's shifting the point of view amongst Ostrovsky, Martin and Max. Rather that richly layering one's perceptions of the people who animate this novel, the technique seems to subordinate them. Although the dialogue contains some brilliant one-liners, it fails to sustain the plot. However, where Rawin does succeed admirably is in his marvelous descrip­tion of scene and setting. The cafe, the city and its populace take on the dreamlike quality of a Chagall painting, at once a blending of both European past and western Canadian present.

His first work, Norman Ra win's Cafe des Westens is not just an "ethnic" novel, or a western Canadian novel, although both elements are present. Libraries that are building collections of both ethnic and western Canadian literature might find the novel a useful acquisition, and it might be of interest to elective courses in contemporary Canadian literature.

But is it the great Calgaryan novel? Of that, I'm not so sure.

Joanne K. A. Peters, Sisler High School, Winnipeg, Man.
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