Sunday, September 16, 2012

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS by C.S. Richardson (2012) Doubleday Canada, 276 pages

Book designer Scott Richardson set tongues a-wagging about his writing talent with his stunning debut novel THE END OF THE ALPHABET, which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. This second one proves that he's not merely a "one-hit wonder."

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS is a gorgeous billet-doux to Paris, to baking, to books, to art, to the tenacity of love. Richardson's great gift in storytelling is his exquisite ability to place you directly in the moment, peering over each character's shoulder. His prose style is filmic, creating a visual intimacy with time and place. Consider, for example, this description of a fire that devastates a Parisian bakery:

"Smouldering flakes begin to blossom in the heavy air, sliding over slumped shoulders, resting for a moment on shoe tops, dying tiny shrivelled deaths in the street. There are glimpses, here and there: a sentence, a phrase, a doomed word drifts by. Among the singed white bits are shards of red leathers and blue cloths, the curled and blackened edges of marbled papers, melted strands of silk ribbon, everything spinning slowly to the ground."

Flip to any page in the story and you will find a sentence so perfectly formed that it will snag your heart. As a prose stylist Richardson seems to me to be a direct inheritor of Scott Fitzgerald, where the beauty of a phrase makes it stand equally alone and apart as it is integral to the narrative.

I'm pleased that this year's triumvirate of Giller Prize judges--all celebrated writers themselves--(Roddy Doyle, Anna Porter and Gary Shteyngart) has named THE EMPEROR OF PARIS to the 2012 long list and hope to see it make the leap to the short listed titles on October 1st.