David Adams Richards has long been one of my favourite Canadian authors. His Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul I have designated as one of the books all Canadians should read (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2015/07/from-schatjes-reviews-archive-incidents.html). His latest novel, Mary Cyr, focuses on a minor character from Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul; also appearing is John Delano who is the protagonist of Principles to Live By (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2016/06/review-of-principles-to-live-by-by.html). Neither of the previous books has to be read in order to understand Mary Cyr.
Mary Cyr, the 45-year-old heiress of a multi-million-dollar fortune is charged with the murder of a young boy while she is in Mexico. Though she is innocent, she becomes a scapegoat because the Cyr family, through its Tarsco Mining Company, invested in a coal mine where 13 men recently died after it collapsed. Amigo, the Mexican company which owns the mine, was given $14 million by the Cyrs for safety upgrades but Amigo executives misappropriated all the funds. It is, however, easier to blame the Cyr family, rich foreigners, than investigate the corruption of the local officials. Mary is seen as a representative of the family, “a woman who on paper was partial owner of this mine” (8) and so the locals transfer all their anger onto her.
There is little credible evidence against Mary and “Tallagonga [the prosecutor] had no intention of prosecuting until she found out who Mary Cyr was. Then they filed the charge, called her guilty and looked for a lifelong prison sentence because she was on the board of Tarsco Mining” (82). And Mary is a perfect scapegoat because her behaviour in the past leaves her compromised. For example, she was implicated in the deaths of two people. And then there are the rumours about her seducing engaged men and her son being fathered by Mary’s beloved grandfather.
The focus of the book is revealing the truth behind the exaggerated rumours and sensationalized gossip. Through flashbacks and entries in Mary’s diary, the image of a deeply wounded woman emerges. From a young age, she was largely misunderstood; she was also bullied and abused and betrayed. “She was always alone – or nearly always alone” (63). This does not mean she is innocent; she often seeks revenge for injustices committed against her or those she cared about. For instance, she does indeed seduce an engaged man but she does so to take revenge on Marianne, the man’s fiancée, “the girl from long ago who had teased Denise Albert [Mary’s childhood friend] to distraction because Denise had wanted to dance one dance with Marianne’s beau” (361). It is emphasized, however, that though Mary “was a good hater, . . . in her compassion she could hate no one at all. No one at all!” (119) and “In fact at the end, she could not hate a soul” (269). She takes revenge on three girls who tormented her, her cousin, and a friend, but afterwards, “she sat in a corner, tears in her eyes. She knew it was a terrible thing to do – in fact she wrote in her diary it was the worst victory she had ever had” (280).
The book examines the process of scapegoating. In the end, it is suggested that Mary “had lived to show the falseness and tragedy of scapegoats.” Eventually, those guilty of using her as a scapegoat would “as they had with so many through the ages, from Joan of Arc to Anne Frank, and with so many in camps and prisons and dark places of the soul, and with so many of our prophets to whom they would wail and beg forgiveness and forget they had ever played a part in their fate” (369). Mary herself says, “’I saw more and much deeper than other people, so I was often accused of their crimes’” (352). Sometimes, like in the Joan of Arc parallel at the end, the imagery is a little heavy-handed. It is also mentioned that Mary stuffs newspapers in her clothes so “her whole life of scandal [is] stapled to her chest” (417) but “Underneath all of it her naked body was shiny white” (418).
As in his other books, the author lashes out at those he disdains. Mary rails against people “using today’s wiles to draw and quarter those poor sons of bitches who lived in another time and bourn us” (192). There are comments about Canada: “As always in Canada, one is not caught between two worlds but between three or four – not between two competing interests but a multitude” (66). The author even dares to compare French language concerns in Quebec to pre-occupation with Aryan purity in Germany: “’they are after French purity like others cherished certain Germanic qualities. Oh, they won’t say that, but their politicians will demonstrate it. Someday I bet they will have laws in Quebec against having English on signs – and call it progress’” (68). David Adams Richards, who writes about the Miramichi, even indicates how he feels as a writer: “Years ago the Miramichi writer who she liked but who she could never read told her that they both were the kind of people who did not belong” (379).
There are some coincidences that are troubling. A guest at the Mexican resort where Mary is staying turns out to have a connection to Mary from her childhood. Perhaps Mary had kept track of this person, as she was wont to do of others, or perhaps the coincidence of meeting her years later “’is the will of God’” (372)? And then there’s the incident with “that bottle” (363); how often does a bottle with a message find its target across an ocean?!
David Adams Richards has a deep understanding of the human condition and human behaviour. This is evident in this novel as in his others. Mary Cyr is not perfect but it is worth reading; in some ways it is like a detective story in which the goal is to reveal the real Mary Cyr. And it warns us against judging others on the basis of superficialities or stereotypes or fake news and against singling out people for unmerited blame.