Picks and Pans Review: The Cunning Man

updated 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 01:00AM

by Robertson Davies

A very unconventional doctor, Jonathan Hullah, referees the battle between science and religion, medicine and spirituality, in this latest offering from Canada's literary master.

The novel continues Davies' ongoing saga of life in that segment of Toronto made up of white, upper middle-class, High Church Anglicans. Davies' world is neither politically correct nor multicultural, though Hullah's inspiration to become a doctor comes from an Ojibwa healer, Mrs. Smoke, who saved his life in childhood.

Hullah becomes a renowned diagnostician, having developed a form of holistic medicine based as much on notions of religion as on pills and surgery. Locally recognized as the doctor of last resort, he knows medicine is no match for fate.

From the first sentence—"Should I have taken the false teeth?"—readers will be swept in by the force of Davies' storytelling and his mastery of language (keep a dictionary handy). But plot and characters soon level out, and the reader eventually loses interest in the too numerous discussions of religion, medicine and culture.

Hullah's life, and that of his erudite friends (some reappearing from previous novels), is intimately tied up with St. Aidan's Church, the location of the book's weak central mystery.

At the end, Hullah ties up the threads of his life and bids us goodnight. Readers will hope this valedictory is not also the 81-year-old author's, as even a flawed Davies novel creates a thirst for more. (Viking, $23.95)

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