The Only Cafe: Confusing, but (maybe) good (And more missing parents)

What’s with all the novels about dead/missing parents? Linden MacIntyre’s latest novel, The Only Cafe, adds to the recent spate of missing-parent novels I’ve read (see Manhattan Beach and Last Snow, First Light). I’m sure there’s a Master’s thesis to be had examining the relationship between the search for absent parents and our current cultural/political moment which we might imagine as one of absent political authority and a desperate search to understand where and how this authority has been abdicated…

But I am not here to do that work. Instead I’m here to report that The Only Cafe is… (a) unnecessarily confusing and (b) reliant (I think?) on coincidence (I say ‘I think’ because the (a) confusion makes me uncertain that it is, in fact, coincidence. I might have just missed the part where the Big Plot Connection was revealed).  Despite (a) and (b) I enjoyed the book and continue to think MacIntyre is an ace-plus storyteller (see The Bishop’s Man and Punishment).

So the confusion. For me, the confusion came from two related problems: (1) multiple narrative points of view, and within these multiple pov’s, multiple and overlapping timelines and (2) a complex history of the Lebanon War. Our protagonist, Cyril, is a journalism intern at the fictionalized CBC and is trying to piece together what happened to his father, Pierre, a fancy-pants lawyer and refugee from Lebanon. At the same time – and here’s the coincidence/probably the novel explains this somewhere? – his gig at the CBC now involves investigating Islamic extremism in Canadian mosques, which (somehow) requires him to learn as much as he can about his father’s past in Lebanon and the Lebanon War because (somehow) his father has ties to Israeli intelligence and war crimes and massacres and I’m not entirely sure – still – how it all fits together.

Interwoven with Cyril’s investigation is Pierre’s point of view at multiple time points: during the early 80s in Lebanon and different points in the present and the near past as he works as a lawyer. Part of the problem for me was the present and near past sections aren’t well delineated and so I kept struggling to figure out where I was in time, place and plot. Layered on to this temporal-spatial confusion was my ignorance of the Lebanon War and the novel’s assumption of more knowledge than this reader had available (I’ll pretend it’s because I’m a millennial and the war happened before I was born?).

And then for added spice and variety (re: confusion) we have the story of Nadar, another journalist, working to infiltrate an extremist group. And the story of Ari, the Israeli intelligence officer who is somehow (again – overly reliant on coincidence) connected to all the things and willing to just tell people about these connections.

I guess I’m saying that if establishing a timeline is one of the first things a journalist is meant to do in investigating a story… this reader really needed the help of a clear timeline and a clear narrative point of view to understand all the character and plot connections.

(Cyrils’ story also includes his entirely unnecessary and distracting failed romance with his girlfriend, Grace. Like what is that plot thread doing? I guess it’s trying to make Cyril a complicated character? Mostly it just makes him seem like a jerk who can’t be bothered to return text messages because he is So Busy but also So in Love. Okay, so maybe it did succeed in complicating his character…)

All that said, the writing is crisp and captivating. The dialogue is particularly strong. And so despite the confusion and frustration in trying to sort out what is going on (there’s an argument to be made that this confusion is intentional in order to mirror Cyril’s bafflement*) it’s an enjoyable read.

*I had my doubts, too, when Cyril gets a contract with the media company. He just seemed a bit stupid, and I couldn’t see him actually getting a contract. Or maybe the novel is trying to make a point about how journalism contracts don’t go to the most deserving, but instead to the best connected? If so, that point wasn’t well enough established for me. And if not, Cyril ought to have been shown to be a bit… smarter.

Okay. So hardly a ringing endorsement, but there’s enough here that I’ll recommend it. And I bet you’ll be less confused and so enjoy it more.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

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