________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number III . . . . June 30, 1995

Under Glass

Grant Buday
Oolichan Books, 1994
142 pages, paper, $10.99
ISBN 0-88982-134-8

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Mark Morton


Flawless, it cast no shadow. Fascinated by the glass ball's rock-like weight yet near invisibility, Josef experimented. He left it for three weeks in the marble font of holy water in the Church of the Silent Virgin, and it was still there on the fourth when he reached in. He set it with a handful of barley in the yard to observe the reaction of the crows. But the goat swallowed it. Josef chased the animal all day. The ball found its way through the labyrinth of the goat's intestines and plopped out unharmed. Josef wondered if perhaps it was some kind of egg. He placed it in the forest, then hid and watched. But no creature emerged from the trees to claim it. Finally Josef realized it might be a crystal ball. He set it in the middle of a ring of candles, but he did not see the future, only his own face reflected in the glassy flames.

Grant Buday's second novel is entitled Under Glass partly because the protagonist is obsessed with glass objects -- an obsession that begins as an up-lifting devotion but soon transforms into a crushing paranoia -- and partly because the narrator examines the vagaries of this obsession so minutely that the protagonist sometimes seems a fascinating specimen caught beneath the lens of a scientist's probing microscope. Near the beginning of the novel, this protagonist -- Josef Bodner -- demonstrates a similar desire to probe the secret of a mystery when he is given a ball of glass, the object described in the excerpt above, an object that in many ways represents Josef himself.

Throughout the novel, the author succeeds in maintaining this fusion of Silent Virgins and greedy goats, of garlic and sapphires, of the mundane and the unearthly. Josef's wife, Moira, for example, grows plump and thick after marriage, and yet -- like Tennyson's Lady of Shallot -- she learns to weave marvellous tapestries which -- like Homer's Penelope -- she unweaves after completing them; likewise, the disappearance of Josef's mother renders Moira incapable of speech, and yet at night in her sleep she sings beautiful, meaningless sounds. The characters seem to move through a world where objects and people around them seem sometimes fraught with allegorical significance and other times devoid of any meaning whatsoever. In fact, the strength of the novel is that it treads this line between romance and realism so intriguingly; in this regard Under Glass reminds me of Melville's Redburn or of Hardy's Jude the Obscure.

If the novel has a weakness, it is that the plot -- only towards the end -- sometimes seems to be driven by a need to fulfil some pre-ordained design; as a result, the characters become a little less significant and less interesting. When this happens to narratives, they end up like Quicksand, an old movie starring Mickey Rooney that begins wonderfully but ends up merely proving a point. Fortunately, this is not the fate of Under Glass; Buday seems a little heavy handed at times in directing his plot, but over all he tells a compelling, character-driven story.

Although the novel is not targeted specifically for young adults, it would work well as part of a high school literature curriculum. The novel's sustained glass imagery would provide many opportunities for interpretation, and Josef's convincingly presented obsession would provoke much discussion.


Mark Morton teaches in the English Department and Centre for Academic Writing at the University of Winnipeg. Last year he implemented a writing course at Balmoral Hall High School, joined the board of the Manitoba Writer's Guild, and began writing an etymological dictionary of cooking words to be published by Blizzard Publishing.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364