The Tedley family is at the centre of the world for the teenage narrator of Barry Dempster’s novel.

Outside World Dempster“How easy for a bungalow and a Texaco station to become the entire world.”

This is Scarborough. This is 1966. But this is not a staid and predictable universe as readers soon realize.

“The Milfords, the Remingtons, the Burrs and the Costellos all had their own twisted warps, but no other family on the block had a Lissy to contend with, or a father whose bad moods could be so charismatic, or a mother who was pretty much under a house arrest of her own devising. Not one of the other families on Arizona Avenue had an eyeless, pinheaded snowman with an invisible mouthful of kisses.”

And those are the known challenges. Soon, things get complicated.

“I was beginning to wonder if the world really spun, or whether it flipped every now and again, a somersault. Head-over-heels. One day my feet were flat on the ground, the next I was hanging from the ceiling like a bat.”

And, more complicated than that.

“Mr. Milford died the next day. Neighbours gathered along the front walk like people at a parade, bowing their heads as the ambulance guys wheeled the body away. Our second ambulance in less than a week. We were a universe falling apart.”

This is familiar territory for coming-of-age novels; a young boy stressed by the needs of parents whose own needs eclipse their capacity to care for their children.

What sets The Outside World apart is the relentless immersion in a freshly teenaged boy’s perspective; it is difficult to sustain that voice through a novel, and to simultaneously prescribe a sense of urgency to a situation when the dimensions of the situation are not thoroughly understood by the narrator who is struggling to bear its weight.

Furthermore, the relationships with all family members (his parents, his grandmother and Lissy) are also consistently and credibly drawn, often challenging and often dissatisfying but never wholly despairing, which is more a reflection of the narrator’s stage in life than of a more objective reality.

And, finally, the novel is the perfect length for the tale Barry Dempster sets out to tell; the story is poised between growing and complete awareness and the author maintains a delicate balance throughout. It is an act of grace.

Poets penning novels: one of my favourite things. Michael Crummey. Aislinn Hunter. Michael Ondaatje. Alison Pick. Now, I’m off to discover Barry Dempster’s poetry.