In Linden MacIntyre’s newest novel, The Only Café, we are confronted with time old question: How much do we know about the people we love? It’s a deep-running concept most of us avoid answering as it more often than not leaves us with more questions than when we began. Stretching from MacIntyre’s homeland of Cape Breton to the urban streets of downtown Toronto, The Only Café, is also an international novel. Readers are transported to Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s when it served as a battleground between Muslim and Christian forces. Described by the author, it’s a window into the Middle East. As the aforementioned Lebanese conflict provides the backbone of MacIntyre’s work, chances are good that you’ll gain a lot of new knowledge about the region and its tumultuous, violent past.
For young Torontonian Cyril Cormier, fears that his emotionally-distant and workaholic father, Pierre, has died are finally confirmed. Having previously vanished, a bone belonging to him is discovered after his boat mysteriously exploded in Cape Breton. A Lebanese refugee who immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1982, Pierre spent his entire life as an enigma to his son. For Cyril, his father was a man of many secrets; many of which would later come to provoke countless questions but not be around to answer. Akin to his nature, the reading of his will is equally cryptic. As Cyril and his family learn, Pierre’s dying wish is to have a memorial in the form of a roast at a downtown café ( The Only Café- a real life location, who knew?). But wait there’s more! According to Pierre, the roast is to be emceed by a person unbeknownst to all as ‘Ari.’ The request is baffling as the recently deceased was not known to have haunted such a place, nor to have much of a social life, let alone a secret friend. Pierre’s demand essentially gets brushed off by both his ex, Aggie and his current widow, Lois, leaving the roast placed on Cyril’s shoulders, he sets about to Danforth Avenue to find Ari.
In terms of narrative, MacIntyre slips back and forth between the viewpoints of Pierre and Cyril. While his work often succeeds as compelling as Cyril peels away the layers of his father’s past, there are also moments where thrills are replaced by a plodding place. The reasons for this, I suspect, can largely be traced to the fact that the story’s main characters can’t hold up the story alone. Despite their unique circumstances, Cyril and his father are made more interesting by the characters they interact with.
As far as flavour goes, they’re pretty vanilla. Working as an intern for CBC, Cyril does not contribute much to his workplace and requires ample hand-holding by his more-experienced colleagues. He finds himself largely unable to contribute to his work assignment, yet somehow manages to secure contractual work. When involved in off-record conversations, he asks if he can take notes; his logic is head-scratching. Even when he realizes his father’s life can provide a turning point in his work, he’s at the mercy of those around him who can and speak Arabic and have a working knowledge of Lebanese history. His father’s refusal to open up about his past reduces poor Cyril to arm shrugs when probed by interested parties. Cyril’s blank slate personality, however, mirrors the readers progress through the book; as Cyril gains more knowledge about his father and the world’s tense climate, so do we the readers.
Perhaps genetically, Pierre suffers a similar affliction.spite of being a lawyer representing an embattled mining company, having been recently diagnosed with cancer, and is wracked with horrifically traumatizing flashbacks of his youth in war-ravaged Lebanon, he is surprising composed and stoic. Although Pierre’s encounters with controversial figures of the past as well as MacIntyre’s near-poetic descriptions of Cape Breton are what keep us reading more, so much of Pierre’s past read like historical narrative. I kept finding myself craving more anger, greater sorrow, and an increased feeling of danger from a work founded on controversy. I know MacIntyre is more than capable of the challenge: his last work Punishment was one of 2014’s best reads. Yet, despite a clunkier than desired storyline, the Middle Eastern themes MacIntyre provides here are undeniably relevant to today’s modern times. Despite being fiction, its base on the author’s own personal experiences working with the CBC grounds The Only Café in realism. For most, it’ll educate readers on an overlooked part of the world and reinforce the grim reminder of how much war costs us all.