The Only Café by Linden MacIntyre – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice

Linden MacIntyre has mastered the art of the page turner and unlike some other authors who have acquired that skill, Linden can actually write.

Linden MacIntyre has written four novels, the first published in 1999 and the second, The Bishop’s Man winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize. All of his previous work has focused on Cape Breton. He is a Cape Bretoner himself, raised in Port Hastings on the southern end of the island. He started what became a very distinguished career in journalism in newspapers in Nova Scotia, moved to  CBC in Halifax and then to Toronto in 1980. When he retired from the CBC he had been the host of investigative journalism program,The Fifth Estate, for 24 years.

In his new novel The Only Café, Mr. MacIntyre has taken a different tack, although his characters still have Cape Breton ties. Of the several protagonists, the one around whom the story revolves is a Lebanese refugee who settled in Cape Breton, married a local girl, then became a successful lawyer in Toronto. The story opens with his son Cyril. a twenty four year old unpaid intern at a media organization, suspiciously resembling the CBC. Cyril’s father, Pierre Cormier, from whom Cyril was estranged, disappeared 5 years ago when his boat exploded at a dock in Cape Breton. He has just been officially declared dead so the will can be read. The will requests a celebration of the father’s life at the Only Cafe, an undistinguished watering hole in the far reaches of the Danforth in Toronto and instructs that a man named Ari be invited. The decision is quickly made to disregard this wish, but Cyril becomes curious and visits the Only Café, where, he has learned, a man named Ari sometimes turns up.

As the story unfolds, we learn, from the point of view of several of the novel’s characters, that Pierre Cormier, the name under which Cyril’s father has lived in Canada,  is assumed and that he had been involved in some way in the 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. The story is cleverly interwoven so that we wonder throughout, as does Cyril and other reporters, whether Pierre died in an accident or was murdered and if murdered, why? The plot includes the infamous Ari, a Muslim reporter who is ostensibly infiltrating mosques to gather informaton, some police detectives,news executives, Cyril’s mother, divorced from Pierre, Pierre’s young widow and even a famous female reporter, Suzanne, who  is somewhat of a cougar, but a relentless and ruthless chaser after a good story. The reader has an overview which the various characters do not and Mr. MacIntyre skilfully interweaves each chapter so that the reader is full of suspicions and supposed insights that keep the story engaging. Mr. MacIntyre also has an excellent grasp of the subtleties of human behaviour and describes intangible tensions deftly. The book is 420 pages long but skips along so neatly that it felt like about 200.

One element that struck me was the cluelessness of Cyril. The point is, I suppose, to illustrate that he knew very little about his father, but his total ignorance of the Lebanese war of the 1980’s stunned me until I realized that if he is 24 in 2017, he was born in or about 1994. It would be ancient history to him, just as the second world war was initially to those of us who grew up in the 60’s.

I just note in passing that a sanctimonious twit of a female lawyer makes a walk-on appearance, visiting the Toronto newsroom from Ottawa to vet a story idea. Wait!! I was a female lawyer at the CBC head office in Ottawa  when Linden MacIntrye worked at CBC and I frequently flew to Toronto to vet stories. Hmmm. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for a satisfying weekend read.