At the heart of The Joyful Child, the new novel by Norman Ravvin (Gaspareau Press) is a subtle, charming sketch of a father-son relationship. The joyful child of the title is four-year-old Nick, innocent, playful, wide-eyed and curious. His father is Paul, whose life seems to be drifting away from its moorings even as his marriage to his wife Mary falls apart. In the centre of the book, Paul takes Nick on the road for a series of what the child happily describes as “aventures.”
Emblems of impermanence are strewn throughout the story like signposts or rusted-out old automobiles along an old highway. There are dreamlike quests, ruminations about loss, disappearing cousins that Paul must find, and various other forms of uprootedness.
“All he [Paul] wanted for his son was solidity. Stability. If he could shield him from his own rootlessness, his wanderings and self-doubt and regret, he’d be happy. The boy, lovely and naïve, was still untouched by it all. His own life, Paul knew, had a tumbleweedy quality to it.”
The early chapters sketching out the family’s domestic life are essentially descriptive without any rising dramatic action; not a good recipe for readability. But when Paul and Mary entrust a young woman living in a hippie-style caravan near their home to babysit Nick, and she is late in returning the boy, a vague, looming menace is introduced. The reader is made to consider the horrible possibility, never explicity expressed, that the caravan will be gone and the boy abducted.
But no, this is neither a novel about child abduction nor a marriage gone awry: Mary just seems to disappear without foreshadow or explanation. However, the sense of vague menace continues. Ravvin utilizes a somewhat distant, infrequently visible narrator (a transient friend) leaving open the possibility that something horrible will happen to Paul. (It does: read it and see.) Perhaps the real fear, too awful to be considered directly, is that something horrible and final will happen to the joyful child — that he will lose his innocence and purity, as he must.
Despite a minimum of plot and story points, The Joyful Child is a subtle, sensitive piece about the ephemeral nature of life and childhood innocence. It is Ravvin’s third novel. He is also the author of a much sharper and pointed collection of short stories, Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish, as well as the non-fiction Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue. ♦