Picks and Pans Review: What's Bred in the Bone

updated 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Robertson Davies

"What's bred in the bone will come out in the flesh: Never was a truer word spoken," a wise old doctor tells the hero of Davies' splendid novel. But there are ironies in this truth about the inescapability of heredity, as there are in everything Davies writes. Hero Francis Cornish has an odd upbringing in a small Canadian town. His grandfather is a wealthy lumberman, growing wealthier. Francis' mother is a beauty, his father a stuffy Englishman. But for love and instruction, Francis is left to an eccentric aunt, the family cook and a coachman who is also the town undertaker, There are terrible family secrets—one hidden in the attic—but Francis is very good at secrets, so good that he becomes an agent for the British in World War II. He is also an artist, starting young with grotesque drawings of his family and the town characters. Some characters in this novel have been in Davies' fiction before, most recently in The Rebel Angels. Bigger than life, they are capable of passion and meanness. Best of all, Davies gives them thoughtful, even philosophical dialogue without succumbing to pedantry. Some scenes are played out right on the edge of farce, and it is easy for a reader to have a silly smile of delight on his face, except when there's something worth crying about. Many Davies novels are in print, but don't hesitate to start with this one. It will send you rushing to read World of Wonders, The Manticore and all the others. (Viking, $17.95)

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